How to become a detective without being a police officer

Updated 27 April 2023

Investigative skills can be helpful in a variety of fields. A detective is a law enforcement officer who conducts investigations to solve crimes by gathering information, interviewing witnesses, collecting physical evidence and searching databases for records. Knowing the steps to become a detective can help you determine if the job is right for you. In this article, we describe what a detective is, provide a step-by-step guide on how to become a one without being a police officer and outline the skills necessary to succeed in this career.

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What is a detective?

A detective gathers evidence and information about crimes. They can be a member of the police force or a private investigator. If you work as a police officer first, you can complete a test and earn a promotion to the position of detective. Alternatively, individuals or organisations hire private investigators to conduct surveillance, research or interviews and provide evidence in legal, illegal or business investigations. As a private investigator, you can work alone or open your own agency.

How to become a detective without being a police officer

If you want to become a detective but lack experience, you may wonder how to become a detective without being a police officer. Being a police officer first is a hard requirement for detectives. You can instead choose to become a private investigator. These professionals perform similar duties to detectives but work privately with clients. The following steps can help you understand how to become a private investigator:

1. Gain work experience

Before working independently or opening your own firm, consider finding a job assisting an experienced investigator. This can help you establish relationships with your mentor's clients. You can continue building your network as you prepare to work as an independent investigator.

2. Take self-defence training

Self-defence training can teach you the best techniques to help ensure your safety at work. As a private detective, defending yourself may be necessary in certain situations. If you're thinking of starting your own firm, you may include self-defence training as one of the benefits for employees.

3. Get an investigator's licence

You can apply for the Security Industry Authority (SIA) individual or business licence after passing the fit and proper person test and paying the £220 licensing fee. This licence strengthens your qualifications and illustrates your expertise and dedication as a private investigator. It may also qualify you to join professional organisations where you can network with other investigators, improve your reputation and therefore gain new clients through recommendations.

4. Acquire a driver's licence

A driver's licence can be essential for working as a private investigator. It allows you to travel to your clients, visit crime scenes and meet with witnesses. When working as an investigator, you may spend time observing people from your vehicle.

5. Establish your professional objectives

Identifying your professional goals can help you determine which types of private investigation services you can provide. You may choose to work only with private individuals, assisting them with divorce or missing people cases. Alternatively, you may collaborate with business owners and work on corporate cases, such as commercial piracy or fraud investigations.

6. Find clients

Running a private investigation firm requires promoting your services and finding clients. You can network in the field or obtain contracts through recommendations. You may also approach local lawyers or businesses to introduce yourself and your firm. When you get new clients, tell them about your previous accomplishments. If they're pleased with your service, they might hire you again in the future or refer you to other potential clients. Once you establish connections, it's useful to try to preserve them.

Related: How to become a private investigator: skills, salary, duties

Responsibilities of a private investigator

An investigator's duties may include:

Researching databases

A private investigator can research family history, legal records and medical information either digitally or in physical archives. After an investigation, they use the information that they gather to help them solve the case. They can also use social media posts and other internet sources in their research.

Performing interviews

Interviewing people is a part of the fact-finding process. Conducting interviews helps investigators obtain the information or evidence they need. They can then use what they discover as evidence in court.

Conducting surveillance

Surveillance involves watching someone without their knowledge. It may entail monitoring where they go and what they do and reporting your findings to your client. You can study tactics for conducting effective surveillance.

Testifying in court

Private investigators may testify in court when working on a criminal claim. While private investigators can decline a request to make a witness statement, many agree to do so. They choose to testify because they believe it's their duty to help expose the truth.

Preparing reports for clients

Clients can hire private investigators to complete a legal task that they can't do. Investigators may then complete reports informing their clients of any additional information they learn about the case. They can also ask the client for compensation when necessary.

Related: What does a detective do? (With career and skill info)

Skills for a private investigator

Here are some skills that are worth working on if you want to be a private investigator:


A skilled investigator is capable of multitasking. If you have deadlines to meet, it may be necessary to work on multiple tasks simultaneously. Even when working on only one case, you may have various responsibilities plus paperwork to complete.

Attention to detail

Attention to detail is important to ensure you collect every piece of information and evidence that could help solve a client's case. It can also improve efficiency, productivity and general performance. Finding organisational tools that work best for you and reinforcing them with frequent use can improve your attention to detail.

Read more: How to improve your attention to detail


Investigating typically requires time and patience. Successful private detectives may need patience when following suspects or conducting in-depth witness interviews. This trait can demonstrate commitment and lead to high-quality results.

Read more: How to be more patient at work and why it's important

Information technology (IT) skills

There's a lot of technology that can aid private investigators in their work. Experience with IT and familiarity with the various options can allow you to specialise in solving digital crimes. With well-developed computer skills, you may also work as a private investigator from home.


As a private detective, you're likely to require good writing skills to generate reports and document investigations. You may also use your oral communication skills to interview clients, informants, suspects and witnesses. The ability to read body language is also important, as this can help investigators determine if someone is lying or concealing information.

Read more: Why is communication important? (And how to improve it)


Good observational abilities are important for conducting effective surveillance. People may leave small clues that reveal their true intentions. If you notice these details, you can provide more informative reports.

Read more: How to improve observation skills: a step-by-step guide


Having a reliable organisational system is essential. It's especially important if you're working with multiple clients at the same time. In this type of situation, you can organise your work and avoid mixing evidence or losing focus.

Time management

Good time management is crucial for investigators, as clients expect them to handle cases quickly and efficiently. When your clients call or email you, respond promptly. Ensuring that you're accessible to your customers can help ensure their satisfaction.

Critical thinking

When conducting investigations, you require well-developed reasoning skills. It's necessary to remain objective and avoid making assumptions when researching and assessing facts. Analytical skills can also be essential for evaluating evidence and reaching logical decisions.

Read more: Why critical thinking is important plus definition and tips


A successful private investigator understands how to effectively utilise various resources. When finding the information they need for a case, the use of technology and digital databases can simplify accessing information such as work history, criminal records and driving records. It may be more efficient to collect the information you need for a case using a computer.


A devoted investigator persists even though it may take time to complete a case. When uncovering the truth, your determination may be what leads you to solve the case. Whether conducting surveillance for long periods or questioning a person of interest, patience can be essential to your success.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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