The Difference Between UK and US Private Investigators

When we compare the private investigation industry as it exists in the United Kingdom and the United States, it’s tempting to succumb to the popular and pervasive stereotypes of PIs from film and literature. Certainly, in the eyes of the British public, a Yank detective is wise-cracking, moustachioed, handsome, and also is Tom Selleck. I can only imagine that this runs both ways, and across the pond, people think I look like Sherlock Holmes, complete with the daft hat.

I think it would come as no surprise that modern detectives in the two countries are more similar than different. Still, there are some gaping ravines between our day-to-day practices that cannot be ignored. Mostly, I believe these distinctions mirror wider cultural differences, but it’s still interesting to note how this manifests in our investigative work.

Did you know, for example, that, proportionally, there are twice as many private investigators in the US as in the UK? There are 3 private investigators for every 10 000 US citizens, while there are only 3 for every 20 000 UK citizens.

There are probably hundreds of factors at play causing this discrepancy. Interestingly, it’s not the ease with which one can become a PI. As we’ll see, it’s actually easier to get into the industry in the UK.

Legislation and Regulation

The variation among state laws means that I can’t make blanket statements about the legalities of investigators in the United States. Still, there are recurring trends across the states. With the exception of just five, all US states and The District of Columbia require Private Investigators to be licensed. What you’ll need to get a license also varies, but in general, you need to be at least 21 years old, a citizen of the US, and to have a High School Diploma.

Most things here tend to be more tightly regulated than in the land of freedom, although private investigation in the UK is something of an exception. Yes, we may have strict laws, covering everything from television adverts to energy prices, but there are no legal barriers preventing someone in the UK from becoming a private investigator. Anyone can do it, regardless of educational background, criminal record, or age.

Somewhat bizarrely, you can get a license from the government, but it’s not a legal requirement.  Many investigators here opt to do this as a mark of professionalism, however you will find some reputable investigators choose not to get a license.

To get the license, you’ll need to pass the very Englishly-named “Fit and Proper Persons” test. Broadly speaking, this is a background check that ensures you meet the requirements to fulfil a certain role. You also need to be over the age of 18, have the right to live and work in the UK, and pay a £220 fee.

Additionally, the license involves completing a Level 3 BTEC in Professional Investigation, which is a vocational certificate covering aspects of the work including responsible data handling, civil procedure, and investigation planning.

The courses can be quite pricey, but I think a good one would give someone a strong foundation when starting out. Not everyone who becomes a private investigator has to have years of experience in the army or government intelligence. Viewing private investigation as a legitimate career path, and not just a retirement hobby can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

Plans for Regulation

The reason why an official private investigator license is available but not enforced is that, in 2001, the government released plans to properly regulate the industry through the newly-established Security Industry Authority (SIA). Among other things, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis derailed these plans, as government attention was drawn elsewhere.

Various cutbacks that resulted from the unexpected surprises at the start of this millennium mean that the legislation for PI regulation is lying dormant. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, a small number of murmurings could be heard among backbench officials and legislators, but ultimately nothing has come of it to date. I believe this to be yet another symptom of the British mentality. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the legislation is basically stuck in a queue.

I’m rather ambivalent about the plans for regulation. It’s not an issue that I take an official stance towards. On the one hand, I’m passionate about fostering a culture of quality investigative service. I’m licensed, and I see the benefit of licensing others. Holding prospective PIs to a basic standard of performance and testing for basic knowledge certainly could raise the average standard.

On the other hand, unscrupulous PIs who are willing to abscond with their clients’ money probably aren’t averse to falsifying licenses. The legislative proposals seem wise in theory, but I’m not sure that, practically speaking, installing more financial barriers for professional investigators will actually do the public much good anyway.


Carrying Weapons

The idea of a PI carrying a weapon would be horrifying to most people here, but it seems to be a lot more common over the Atlantic. When the legal paperwork is in order, it seems to be standard for an American PI to carry a gun.

Given the widespread availability of firearms in the US, I can see the necessity there, but it’s not a phenomenon that translates well overseas. I’d be forced to call the police if I suspected a colleague or an associate of even owning a handgun, let alone taking one out on jobs.

I’m not here to take a stance on gun control in the US. Frankly, I don’t know enough to have a real opinion. I just thought it was an interesting quirk of US investigations that obviously stems from a big cultural difference between the two nations.

Ultimately bar the regulatory limits, which may well be subject to change, PIs in both countries are more or less the same. We’re all bound by the same laws as ordinary members of the public, and we have no extra legal powers. Differences like the carrying of weapons are fundamentally caused by legal disparity.

I’d love to be able to paint the investigative industry in my country as fascinating and exotic, but like most things in our work, the truth just isn’t that exciting. We don’t wear deer-stalking caps, and we don’t have a direct phone line to The Queen. In the words of Maya Angelou, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Written by John Eastham Private Investigator United Kingdom