How to Become a Criminal Investigator: Career Guide


Updated April 4, 2024 · 5 Min Read

Interested in a law enforcement career where you investigate and solve crimes? Learn how to become a criminal investigator with our guide. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Criminal investigators (CIs) work in local, state, and federal law enforcement to help solve crimes and bring criminals to justice. They work on cases, collect evidence, observe suspects, and testify in court. This takes excellent communication, leadership, and judgment skills. The careers also often require physical strength and stamina.

You need at least a high school diploma to become a CI, but some employers, like the federal government, may require or prefer candidates with a bachelor's degree.

This guide explores how to become a criminal investigator. We discuss education, experience, and certification requirements. We also explain the key skills you need for careers in this field.

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What Does a Criminal Investigator Do?

A criminal investigator works with other law enforcement officers to solve crimes. They work diligently to ensure they apprehend the correct suspects, thoroughly analyzing crime scenes to gather relevant evidence.

CIs regularly work with police, detectives, and other criminal investigators. While these professionals may succeed in finding and apprehending suspects on their own, most CIs work with a team.

A criminal investigator's responsibilities and wages typically increase the longer they work. Employers often assign the toughest cases to experienced CIs with successful track records.

Job Duties of a CI

  • Respond to emergencies
  • Analyze crime scenes for evidence
  • Collect evidence, including voice recordings and video
  • Obtain warrants for arrest and arresting criminals
  • File for and secure search warrants
  • Interview witnesses
  • Testify in court
  • Write case reports
  • Maintain meticulous case records

Where Do Criminal Investigators Work?

Most criminal investigators work for government agencies, but some find employment elsewhere, including with colleges and universities. Industries with the highest employment for criminal investigators include local government, the federal executive branch, state government, and the postal service.

Criminal investigators can find federal jobs at agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Local and state police departments, sheriff's offices, and attorney generals offices also hire criminal investigators.

Key Skills for Criminal Investigators

Due to the position's variety of demands, CIs need diverse skills in areas such as communication, leadership, and judgment. The following list outlines several key skills for successful CIs.

  • Judgment: Criminal investigators use their best judgment in rapidly changing, often volatile environments. CIs learn judgment skills through a combination of education and experience.
  • Communication: As members of law enforcement teams, CIs regularly coordinate with police and detectives. Criminal investigators also interview witnesses and potential suspects, which requires effective communication skills.
  • Leadership: Criminal investigators, especially those with more experience, may lead teams as they collect evidence, interview witnesses, and draw conclusions.
  • Physical Fitness: CIs may need to pursue or apprehend suspects, which can require stamina. Poor physical fitness can undermine CIs' ability to work effectively.
  • Empathy: Many of the people criminal investigators interact with are victims of crime or have been wrongfully accused of criminal activity. CIs must be able to empathize with people and see things from multiple perspectives.

How to Become a Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators combine intuition with education and experience. When searching for criminal investigators, agencies look for candidates with relevant education, skills, and experience. Requirements to become a criminal investigator vary by agency, location, and specialization. The following steps are an example trajectory leading to this career:

  1. Earn a high school diploma.
  2. Earn a college degree in criminal justice, criminology, or a related field.
  3. Apply for the police academy.
  4. Graduate from the police academy and become a patrol officer.
  5. Gain on-the-job experience.
  6. Earn certifications that local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies require.
  7. Apply for jobs as a criminal investigator or earn a promotion.
  8. Pass a background check and drug test.

Education Requirements

Criminal investigators need at least a high school diploma or GED, though some police departments and federal agencies may prefer or require a college degree.

A bachelor's or master's degree can lead to more employment opportunities within law enforcement. By majoring in criminal justice or a related field, you can gain an understanding of the U.S. justice system and criminal procedures. Some programs include internships that provide you with hands-on experience in the field.

CIs seeking specialized careers should look for degrees aligned with their interests and goals. For example, if you are interested in investigating tax fraud, you may want to earn a bachelor's or master's degree in forensic accounting.

Required Experience

Criminal investigators who want to work for state or local police departments usually need law enforcement experience. You can get the experience you need by completing police academy training and working as a police officer before you pursue a criminal investigator career.

Federal agencies that employ criminal investigators also often require significant training, usually at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center or the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. After completing your federal training, you typically need at least two years of professional experience or one year of experience and at least a master's degree.

Most criminal investigator roles also complete extensive on-the-job training after being hired.

Certification Requirements

While not every agency requires certification, professional credentials can demonstrate specialized knowledge and skills to potential employers, making candidates more competitive in the job market. Criminal investigators can earn a professional certified investigator credential, which requires 3-5 years of investigation experience, including two years in case management.

They can also pursue the certified legal investigator credential, which also requires at least five years of investigation experience and demonstrates advanced knowledge in the legal investigation field.

Other Requirements

In addition to the education and experience requirements outlined above, you may need to meet other requirements to qualify for a criminal investigator position. For example, candidates must typically be at least 21 years old, pass a criminal background check, and meet physical fitness criteria.

Criminal Investigator Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of police and detective roles will grow 3% between 2022 and 2032 — as fast as the national average projected growth rate for all careers.

According to the BLS, the median salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $86,280 in 2022. The BLS also estimates there were 107,400 people employed as detectives or criminal investigators in 2022.

Earning potential for criminal investigator roles vary by employer, industry, and location. Urban areas often pay higher average wages than rural settings, which correlates with increased cost of living expenses in more populous regions. Explore employment numbers and median wages by industry in the table below.

Criminal Investigator Salary by Industry
Industry Employment (2022) Median Salary (2022)
Federal government 40,130 $109,490
State government 22,060 $68,950
Local government 44,300 $74,330
Source: BLS

Professional Resources for Criminal Investigators

Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies

This professional association connects industry leaders to share ideas about improving criminal investigation practices.

Federal Criminal Investigators Association

This group organizes advocacy and educational efforts for federal criminal investigators.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ICE maintains a guide about how to become a criminal investigator, including details about the application process and job responsibilities.

Inspector General Criminal Investigator Academy

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency runs the Inspector General Criminal Investigator Academy to train criminal investigators.

Related Careers

Explore these related careers in the field of criminal justice:

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Criminal Investigator

Can you become a criminal investigator without being a cop?

If you want to work as a criminal investigator in a police department, you must typically graduate from a police training academy and get experience working as a police officer. However, if you want to work for federal agencies like the FBI or as a private investigator, this is not necessarily a requirement.

What is the difference between a criminal investigator and a detective?

Many agencies and departments use the terms criminal investigator and detective interchangeably. Both detectives and criminal investigators work with law enforcement agencies to solve criminal cases.

How many hours does a criminal investigator work in a day?

How many hours you work depends on what type of criminal investigator you are and who you work for. Criminal investigators usually work at least 40 hours a week, but may put in overtime hours if they are on a time-sensitive case. Some CIs, like FBI agents, regularly work 50 hours per week and are continuously on call.

What are the cons of being a criminal investigator?

Being a criminal investigator can be stressful and physically dangerous, especially in situations where you encounter violent criminals. You will likely witness the effects of violent crime and hear details about victims' experiences, which can be psychologically difficult. Depending on your specific line of work, you may need to work overtime and be on call.

In what state do criminal investigators make the most money?

According to the BLS, criminal investigators and detectives make the most money in Washington, D.C., where they earned a median annual salary of $133,890 in 2022. Top-paying states for this profession include Alaska ($128,410), Hawaii ($119,290), Maryland ($117,800), and Washington ($110,620).

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