Bounty Hunter: Career Guide
In most states, formal education is not required to work as a bounty hunter or fugitive recovery agent. However, education does help when trying to build a successful business in this line of work, and it is strongly suggested that those interested in this career earn at least an associate's degree in criminal justice to gain an understanding of the law and fugitive psychology. In many states, a license is required in order to work as a bounty hunter. It is a good idea to know the bounty hunting requirements of each state, as some allow bounty hunters to carry a firearm and others do not; some require that bounty hunters wear identification tags and others do not; and some states consider bounty hunting illegal under all circumstances. This guide discusses what bounty hunters do, how to become one, and the career outlook for the profession as a whole.
Career Description, Duties, & Common Tasks
In recent years, the bounty hunting profession has been publicized through television shows such as Dog the Bounty Hunter. While some aspects of this show are somewhat sensationalized, the main premise of the show demonstrates the primary job of a bounty hunter or bail enforcement agent: To locate defendants, also known as “skips,” who have skipped bond or bail by failing to appear for their court date.
Bounty hunters have several duties. They may conduct investigations, perform surveillance, arrest fugitives, and transport them back to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. For the most part, bounty hunters are independent contractors. They are typically hired by bail bond companies to search for clients who have skipped bail. Bounty hunters usually receive 10% to 25% of the bail bond's face value for bringing in a fugitive.1 The occupation is somewhat unique to the US since in most other countries, sworn law enforcement officers are the only individuals empowered by law to track down fugitives.
Steps for Becoming a Bounty Hunter
It is helpful to have some education, such as an associate's degree, in the field of criminal justice if you intend to become a bounty hunter. Another skill that a potential bounty hunter might develop through education or training is martial arts or self-defense. In addition, one should also know how to maintain security, how to negotiate successfully, and how to use a firearm or taser. Most states require that bounty hunters be licensed. Licensure is usually granted after an examination is passed demonstrating that the applicant has a sound knowledge of that state's laws. In some cases, a license to carry firearms or non-lethal weapons may be required, if bounty hunters and fugitive recovery agents are allowed to carry weapons while working in a given state. While the process to become a bounty hunter varies significantly from state-to-state, the following steps are general ones you can expect if you are seeking employment in the field:
- Complete a degree program and/or gain experience in the field.*
- Become licensed as a fugitive recovery agent or bounty hunter in your state.*
- Consider working with a mentor, an experienced bounty hunter who can train you.**
- Network with bail bondsmen in your area.
- Apply for fugitive recovery jobs with one or more bail enforcement agencies.
- Begin working as a bounty hunter.
- Continue training on-the-job once hired.
*Optional. Check with your state for the educational and experience requirements for becoming a bounty hunter. Each state's licensure process is unique.
Please note that a degree cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Additional academy training or education may be required for law enforcement jobs.
Bounty Hunter Job Training
Proper training is necessary to become a bounty hunter. Some states require formal training in order to apply for a license. Job training is especially important in states that do not require licensure. In many cases, prospective bounty hunters will shadow more experienced professionals or experienced bail bondsmen, learning the ropes by observing. Since they are mostly independent contractors, developing relationships with local bondsmen will help bounty hunters advance their careers.
To increase your safety and ability to catch defendants on the run, you can train in self-defense, firearms training, and martial arts. You should focus most of your physical training on stamina and defense as bounty hunters should aim to defend themselves as opposed to engaging in a physical confrontation. Fugitive recovery agents should also look for opportunities to improve their investigative skills and negotiation tactics.
Since the process varies, the 50 states can be categorized into four main groupings regarding the licensure of bounty hunting:
- States that require licensure or regulation
- States that allow the profession but do not require licensing
- States that allow fugitive recovery but not the title of “bounty hunter”
- States without bounty hunting because no private bail system exists
States requiring licensure or registration
- Select One
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
States allowing fugitive recovery but no licensing
- Select One
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
States allowing fugitive recovery but not the title of “bounty hunter”
States without a private bail system or fugitive recovery
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Many people who are pursuing careers as bounty hunters have prior experience working as detectives or in other positions in the law enforcement field, and this experience certainly helps. Bounty hunters should be intuitive, excellent listeners, self-motivated, and driven. It also helps for them to be physically fit. They should be analytical, able to identify patterns, and able to think critically. Fugitive recovery agents must also:
- Be proficient in research – Fugitive recovery agents should be knowledgeable about the resources available to find their “skip.” This includes searching license plate records and identifying vehicles, scouring social media for leads, and talking to known associates to determine where the “skip” may be hiding out.
- Understand the risks – Dealing with unpredictable circumstances and people can pose a personal risk to the bounty hunter. Having a plan to catch your skip and having training in negotiation and hand-to-hand combat can decrease your risk. Bounty hunters also take on significant financial risks because they are essentially self-employed. Be sure you have a business plan in place before embarking on this career.
- Understand state law – Because bounty hunters must adhere to the law, you should have a thorough understanding of rules and regulations in the state where you intend to work. Professionals must follow the law of every state where fugitive recovery is undertaken; this is especially important since “skips” may cross state lines to avoid going to prison.
- Exercise good judgment – Fugitive recovery agents must use all of the information at their disposal to make sound decisions on where to go and when to engage a fugitive. For that reason, you must have good personal judgment.
Career Opportunities and Employers
Most bounty hunters are self-employed and hired on a contract basis by bail bondsmen to apprehend bail fugitives. Once successful, bounty hunters tend to gain a good reputation among bondsmen and see an increase in hiring opportunities as a result. Experienced bounty hunters may go on to start their own bail bond business, hiring more junior bounty hunters to work for them while they focus on management.
Bail bondsmen usually require proof of experience before hiring you as an independent contractor. When starting out as a fugitive recovery agent, showing proof of your assistance on bounty hunts or having previous law enforcement or investigation experience will help get your career off of the ground.
Job search engines have some positions posted, but you're likely to find more work by building relationships with existing bail bondsmen. Because bounty hunters are independent contractors, regardless of the hours put in, they typically will not be paid until the fugitive has been captured and is in police custody in the original jurisdiction.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
Although “bounty hunter” is the common term for someone who finds defendants and returns them to jail, there are other job titles that are used to describe the same or similar work.
- Bail Enforcement Agent
- Bail Fugitive Recovery Agent
- Bail Recovery Agent
- Bounty Hunter
- Fugitive Recovery Agent
Bounty Hunter Salary and Job Outlook
Earnings for bounty hunters depend on the number of cases worked and the success rate in capturing bail jumpers. Bounty hunters typically receive 10 to 25% of the bail bond amount; more experienced bounty hunters can earn a higher percentage.1 While it doesn't report data for bounty hunters, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that private detectives and investigators, who perform similar work, earned a median salary of $50,090 in 2018.2 The employment growth rate expected for private detectives and investigators is about average, at a projected 11% through 2026.2
Interested in a career similar to a bounty hunter? Check out these related careers:
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What kind of training do I need to become a bounty hunter?
Answer: Most states do require at least some training or experience to earn licensure. If you are in a state that allows firearms, a carry permit will be needed as well. Training can typically be completed on-the-job or through a criminal justice program.
Question: Do bounty hunters work regular hours?
Answer: Bounty hunters should expect to work odd shifts due to the nature of their work. Nights and weekends are not off-limits for a person whose main job is to capture fugitives. When a bounty hunter receives a new “skip” from a bail bondsman, the bounty hunter usually works non-stop until the “skip” is found.
- National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents (NAFRA): The NAFRA maintains professional standards for bounty hunters, bail enforcement agents, and the entire industry.
1. National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents, FAQ: https://www.fugitive-recovery.org/faq.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Detectives and Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm