#39: Private Investigator Salary: How much can you expect to make as a Private Investigator?

With any career choice, there are many questions that need to be answered. Aside from whether being a private investigator is a rewarding career or a career worth pursuing, the much larger question inevitably becomes, “How much does a private investigator make?”.  What is a typical private invetigator salary to expect? The salary of a private investigator is understandably important, however, there are some important things to consider and to expect when entering the industry which will be discussed in this article.

What is your career goal?

My initial career goal was never to be a small business owner. My initial career goal was to take the investigative skills I had learned through Loss Prevention and apply them to a career as a private investigator. I was working two jobs at the time, had recently married my wife and had a child on the way. I wanted to make more money with less actual hours worked so I could spend more time with my family. I managed to make slightly more money being a private investigator then working two jobs. I entered the investigation industry making $15.50 an hour. Ironically I seemed to work about the same amount of hours if you take into consideration the amount of travel time I had each day and the amount of report writing that took place when I got home. I moved up the ladder within a very large investigative company and was making roughly $45,000 a year as a territory supervisor. There were not many positions or steps above the level I had reached. I might not have made more than 45K a year had I remained with the company.
Nearly 10 years later companies continue to hire investigators at the entry-level salary of approximately $15.00 an hour or less.

My advice is to determine what your goals are going to be before you become a private investigator.

  1.  Are you going to be the employee of another company for your entire career? Doing this will severely limit how much you will make.
  2. Will you use the experience gained while working for a company to eventually open up your own company? Doing this will give you no limit as to the amount of income you can make.
  3. Will you use the experience as a stepping stone into another career path?

Determining what you will do early on is in your benefit as it will help you determine the different steps you will take early on in your career.

More Money, More Problems. Less Money, More Problems. Your quality of life will be affected by both problems.

There have been moments in my career where I was working 60 hours a week, traveling constantly away from home and making quite a bit more money over the year than anticipated. However, money isn’t everything as I missed out on many moments in my child’s life that I wish I was around for. Additionally, it put a strain on my relationship with my wife as I was never home to help raise my daughter or to be there for my wife when she needed me. Even though I was making great money, the hours and travel away from my family were unbearable.

There have been times in my career where I was making over $20.00 an hour and less than $30,000 a year. The company I was working for did not have enough work to keep me busy throughout the year. As a result, this caused a financial strain on my family.

Not all investigators will have families to worry about or will have the same struggles as a result of working too much or too little. The main thing to take into consideration is that making more money or less money while employed with a company will take its toll in one way or another. Personally, my current goal is to make enough money to pay my bills, spend time with my family and watch my children grow up. Aspirations of growing my business will likely not happen until my children are much older.

Private Investigator Salary.  What does a private investigator make?

What Entry Level Private Investigator Salary Can you Expect?

The very simple answer to this question is between $16.00 to $18.00 an hour depending on the company. There is no guarantee of an expected yearly salary. As previously stated it can vary depending on the workload your company has.  The salary can be lower in some states and with some companies depending on various perks (equipment, company vehicle, gas card, company perks).

What salary can experienced private investigators expect to make working for a company?

Experienced private investigators (2 years or more) can expect a starting salary as a field investigator of $17.00 to $21.00 an hour depending on the company. Remember that making an hourly wage does not always translate into a specific yearly wage.  There will be times that you will have no work.  

The Highest Paid States for Private Investigators in 2015

Below is the top 5 average salaries in the United States according to data collected by Department of Labor for 2015.

State# EmployedHourly Wage AverageYearly Wage Average

Private Investigator Salary

What salary can be expected for a private investigation business owner?

Hopefully if you have decided on the private investigation career path you have also decided to have your own business as well. Being a business owner can be a scary thing but the opportunities are really endless. Private Investigation Agency owners can make anywhere from $0 a year to $_________. That means there is no boundary or limit. Typical Private Investigation Agency owner’s charge anywhere from $55.00 an hour to well over $100.00 an hour. The amount that is charged can depend on the assignment, what you specialize in and how good you are at what you do.

The private investigator salary is low.  Should you take the job?

A friend of mine that’s an investigator recently told me he found a company that was hiring private investigators with no experience at a starting salary of $12.00 an hour, and that the company would train the potential investigator. He felt that the starting salary was grossly low.

My feeling is that even though the starting wage was low, it was a great opportunity for someone to get their foot in the door and gain some experience as a private investigator. A company is rarely willing to train individuals to become private investigators. People from all over the world are looking for an opportunity. Once you gain some experience you can find another company to work for so you can make a livable wage. This also applies to internships. Working as an intern for free gives you the chance to gain experience and start your career as a private investigator.

What is the future of the Private Investigation Job Market?

There will always be a need for a private investigator’s services.  The need will vary depending on your location, laws, the economy, and the services you provided.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the private investigation industry is going to grow approximately 21 percent from 2010 to 2020.  It is believed that the industry will increase due to security concerns.

Private investigations have expanded to new markets with the internet age and with the advancement in technology.  The more markets that are available means more opportunity for others to enter the investigation field.  In my opinion things look good for the industry.

StateNumber EmployedHourly Mean WageAnnual Mean WageEmployment Percent Relative Standard Error
New Hampshire19021.484469027.1
New Jersey73030.526348043.4
New Mexico33016.193368011.7
New York136028.565941022.3
North Carolina46018.943940046.9
Rhode Island6022.204618025.7
South Carolina-23.7049290-
North Dakota----
South Dakota----


  1. I’ve been listening to your blog for a short time now. I generally listen to it during surveillance. I do about 20 to 30 hours a week, so I’m making my way through it quickly. I agree with most of what you say and think that your podcast and articles are a great representation of the industry, but I’m little concerned about the rates that you are talking about. I know that pay verys greatly between geographic areas, but as professionals we should expect proper compensation for our time. And, charge prices that are realistic and representative of the value that we provide our clients. Unless it is a special needs case I would never provide service for less than $30 per hour (as a vendor to another firm).

    I understand that the insurance industry took a hit and most providers want cheep quick surveillance. But can you imagine a criminal defense investigator who charges $17.00 an hour? I can’t, nor would I hire one that thought so little of his/her abilities. You are providing several of the same services as an insurance defense investigator and making 3 to 9 times less. I have worked on the operations side after moving up in a company, and could not bring myself to hire investigators willing to work for discount wages. On the flipside I can’t pay an armature the rate for a professional job.

    To give you a little background, I first started in the field in 2006. My beginning wage was $32.50 per hour plus expenses. But, I did have to market myself bring in my own clients to insure work. I also received training from the firm, and was making enough to take courses on my own dime to improve my competency in areas of interest. I worked for this local company and several national providers for several years my standard vendor rate became $35 flat in 2009. I have never had a national vendor client complain about this rate. A lower rate might have been acceptable depending on benefit packages, but most companies that I have worked with use subcontractors for most of the their workload.

    In May this year, I opened my own firm and started providing services directly to “end” clients, focusing on workplace investigations, and civil/criminal litigation support. I now charge much higher rates but still sometimes do work for my old vendor clients. I have raised my vendor rates to $45.00 hour. Some national clients did have a problem with that at first, but decided that the value I provided was worth the extra cash.

    None of us are perfect and we often look down on ourselves for whatever reason, from time to time. But private investigation is an art as much as a science; we deserve to be paid what we are worth. Investigators that follow a strict code of professional ethics, use the latest technology and techniques available, take full advantage of continuing education opportunities, and provide a professional work product should not under sale themselves. Investigators, that are reading articles like this and taking the time to find information and training to help provide more value for clients, should do the research to find out what the local market can support and charge realistic rates. If a client isn’t willing to pay for what your time is worth; they are not worth your time. Better clients are out there.

    I understand that pricing strategies are a huge part of overall business strategy, but as an industry it’s something we need to talk about. The clients are the ones that end up suffering. I can’t see how an investigator can provide a valuable investigation at such low rates. Not for an extended period of time, anyway. How does one even afford the proper professional grade equipment to begin the case? I think I’ve let this little rant go long enough. Investigators being paid appropriately is a passion of mine. I take care of my employees and hearing about how other companies take advantage of economic times to get PIs to work for less eats at me, but that’s business. Well, this is probably a blog of its own at this point. I’ll end and just say: If you are a professional, bill like a professional.

    • Thank you Tanner for the great comment.

      I am not sure of the laws and licensing in Tennessee but in most states an employee of an investigative firm can not take on their own clients without being individually licensed under their own agency license. Of course those states that don’t require a license don’t really apply.

      As for entering the industry as an employee making 32.50 an hour, you will not find any employer hiring at this rate. This is not a realistic pay rate for anyone just entering the industry. This is especially true for someone that has zero experience.

      As a business owner the sky is really the limit in regards to rates. You just have to find clients that are willing to pay those rates.

      • To clarify, I brought my clients into the agency where they signed contracts; I would then take the lead and work the files at my contracted rate with the agency.

        Starting out, a good company is hard to find. But even if you start out making less than $20, once you’ve gotten two years experience you can move on. There are tons of companies out there that will pay descent rates if you produce results, have a great work product, and sell yourself well. I agree that someone with no experience should be paid at this rate, but people without experience should not be in the field to begin with. The agency I started with had 15 weeks of classes followed by supervised in-field training. It was about a year before I was taking my own files and making my full pay rate as a full associate in the firm. I should also have pointed out, this was not an insurance and risk mitigation agency. We were a regional firm that handled mostly complex civil and criminal litigation cases. I moved into insurance work later on and had several large investigations and LP & shrink consulting on my resume, which probably made it easier to sell the rate to the larger companies that provided more “commodity based” investigative services.

        If you are good are what you do and even better at marketing yourself, there’s no reason to stay at low pay. Unless you just want the experience.

  2. Sorry, I don’t mean to be so wordy. I forgot to put this one in the last post. And thanks for replying to the first one so quickly.

    In Tennessee a person holding a valid private investigator license can solicit business. All marketing material and product must have information of the sponsoring company. Basically you can market yourself to clients, but to hire you they have to contract through the company where you are employed. I would hand out cards at the court houses and go to events to find clients. They would then contact the company I was working for, sign a service agreement, and then I would be assigned to the case as well as get a bonus for bringing in business. The payroll expenses for the company where ungodly but the investigators were happy and it showed in our work product.


    • Tons of free videos and information on this site. Watch the videos and if you have any questions let me know.


  4. The age old question…how does one get real experience if no one will give you the opportunity to attain the required experience???

    Puzzled :{

    • Sometimes you have to gain experience through jobs that compliment the one your looking for. Process server, loss prevention, security, police officer, paralegal, records researcher, etc… And of course if in the right area and meeting the state requirements you can always start you own business.

    • Keep trying E Smith.. 1 year after getting my P.I. License I was hired by a large East Coast Co,at $ 20 an hour plus standard reimbursements. I’m in Texas, now 3 years later I’m going to a new company and negotiated a $28.00 an hour salary! It just takes time. Good Luck!

  5. It is rather subjective to ask what can I make as a PI. I would agree with the previous comments about general starting and median wages. But I would add that you are only limited in income to how valuable you are to your clients.

    I’ve been a PI for almost 20 years and started at the bottom. I do not own my own company and work for a small firm but earn six figures, which is dependent on production not just hours spent. You won’t get paid a million dollars, but you can definitely make good money in thus business. The trick again is proving yourself valuable to the client.

    • Hey I read your comment and was wondering how you were able to make six figures. Right now I work for an agency making 20 an hour and I have been a PI for almost 4 years. I really need to move up in salary or make a career change. Please email me at tjc84@aol.com I really appreciate your help.

      • Tony,

        Have you thought about starting your own firm? Generally speaking the vast majority of investigators working for someone will not make 6 figures.


    • Doublenot7,

      Would you agree that you are not the norm. That most investigators working for someone will not make 6 figures?

      How many years did it take you to begin making 6 figures while employed with an investigative firm?


      • No, I would not hold myself out as the normal salary range. But I know of others with similar pay and of course many owners make far more. I do not receive a flat salary, hourly based on office time, overtime or holiday pay, not even paid holidays. I am paid hourly based on my billing to clients.

        I mostly work within the specialized area of oil & gas and also maritime. Those areas along with select clients are major factors in earnings. Hard work of course good fortune played their part also. My largest case of my career I will not mention but I guarantee pretty much anyone in the civilized world has heard of.

        At about 10 years into career as a PI I found myself in what I considered a normal range for pay making around $60K. But one bad year found my pay dropping to near $40K. I then accepted an overseas assignment in a high threat area for 2 years. This assignment paid well off the scale given the danger level. Upon returning back to the states, I negotiated a 75% increase to my pay scale. That was almost 10 years ago.

        I think the biggest things to do increase your earnings are to make your clients value you. Building those relations with big clients and performing at the levels they expect are key.

        While not 1-2-3 directions, I hope it helps others out developing a plan.