It’s estimated that there are over 10,000 private investigators working in the UK today. The exact number isn’t certain, because although there is a professional association for PIs (The Association of British Investigators) there is no legal requirement to join or meet minimum standards.

If you’re interested in hiring a private detective, you might have questions about what they do, and what limits there are on how they can operate. Here are some of those answers.

What You Need to Know About Hiring a Private Detective in the UK

What You Should Know Before Hiring a Private Detective

People hire a private investigator for many reasons. It might be that they are trying to find a missing person, perhaps a loved one who has left home without leaving contact details or a tenant who left without paying their rent. 

They can also run background checks into individuals, with CRB Direct, or find records which can help in cases like child support or divorce where one partner is trying to hide things from another. While there is no regulation of UK private investigators, there are still limits to what they can do.

What a PI Can Do

Some of the methods that a Private Investigator can legally use include:

  • Follow someone: As long as they aren’t trespassing, or breaking any other laws, a PI can follow someone. This includes taking photographs of them.
  • GPS tracking: A PI can tag a person with a GPS tracker, which will then relay data back to them about that person’s whereabouts. This can be useful as a backup to in-person surveillance, or to follow packages, etc.
  • Talk to people: A PI might speak to friends and family of a person they are looking for, to try and locate them or find out more about them.
  • Use databases: PIs have access to special databases that let them find out detailed information about individuals. These databases help them perform background checks and link property, etc. to individuals.

What a PI Can’t Do

Despite what you might have seen in the movies, there are also certain things that a PI can’t do. These include:

  • Breaking the law: PIs are just like private citizens, and they can’t do anything which would get them arrested, for example, trespassing or intercepting someone’s mail.
  • Cloning phones: After the phone-hacking scandal, PIs and journalists took a lot of criticism for listening to other people’s voicemails. This is illegal, and just like anyone else a PI who did this can be arrested.
  • View bank accounts: PIs can access public records, but your bank and other financial records are protected and can’t be legally obtained.
  • Make arrests: Just like a regular person, a PI can only make a citizen arrests in certain circumstances.

Hiring a Private Investigator

If you’re thinking of hiring a private detective, it is worth knowing what they can and cannot do to ensure that your expectations are realistic. Although they don’t have special powers, they do have experience and skill in solving problems which makes them well placed to help in certain situations. A good PI will be honest with you about how they can help.


Founder of in 1998 and constantly strives to change peoples attitudes to the town, Brian is a self described Paisley Digital Champion who promotes Paisley via any means necessary. You can also follow me on X