What is an Unsub in Criminal Minds? – Explained

Written by

John Cotton


Logan Miller

what is an unsub in criminal minds

One of the most common questions new watchers ask about this police procedural crime drama is: What is an unsub in Criminal Minds? After all, this term is repeated throughout every episode, some as much as 50 times.

What you’ll soon find out upon binge-watching the TV series is that “unsubs” stand for “unidentified subject” or “unknown subject” of an investigation.

In the context of Criminal Minds, whenever the FBI profilers work on a case, they refer to the suspect, killer, or unknown perpetrator as “unSub.”

UnSub in Criminal Minds Explained


Criminal Minds features a fictionalized group of Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) investigators under the FBI’s National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC).

Local (federal, state) and international law enforcement agencies seek the help of BAU in solving case investigations whenever necessary.

On every episode, this team hunts down a new unsub using their profiling skills, knowledge of criminal psychology, and extensive law enforcement network.

Although the show isn’t real, the investigations featured on Criminal Minds follow the FBI’s BAU time-sensitive and complicated cases involving:

  1. Violent crimes against children and adults
  2. Bombing and Arson Investigations
  3. Corruption
  4. Communicated threats

UnSub in Real-life Law Enforcement


Civilians are usually introduced to the term “unsub” when watching American crime procedurals.

So, is unsub a real term? The short answer is YES.

The long answer is “it depends” on the law enforcement agency involved in the case and the location where the crime was committed. This is because not all police districts, officers, or even FBI agents refer to the unknown subject as an unsub.

The unsub meaning is self-explanatory, but it is often used improperly, even by those working in law enforcement.

Unsub vs. Suspect


In FBI and other law enforcement units, “unsub” and “suspect” are not supposed to be interchanged. Contrary to how normal citizens use these terms interchangeably, they actually mean different things:

Investigators know the identity of the suspect. Investigators do not know the identity of the unsub.
Suspects are only accused of being offenders of the crime. Investigators are not 100% sure that suspects are actually involved. Unsubs are 100% the offenders of the crime. Investigators know unsubs committed the crime.

UnSub Profiling


Another misused police lingo on TV shows is “profilers.”

In the real world, the FBI does not have a job called “profiler.” Instead, the job description of a “supervisory special agent” matches what crime shows depict a “profiler” does.

In the FBI, supervisory special agents are highly trained in criminal behavior. They assist in investigating cases that affect national security.

In both the Criminal Minds world and real life, unsub profiling means the team of investigators determine traits about an unsub in hopes of narrowing down a pool of suspects.


Unsub isn’t a term exclusive to Criminal Minds. In fact, it was made popular by other crime shows on TV.

If this is your favorite show, you probably won’t need to ask, “What is an unsub in Criminal Minds?” anymore. The American FBI crime drama series has been referring to the show’s villains as the “UnSub” (or unknown subject) since it premiered in 2005.

But if you came late to the party, now you know what unsub means when you watch a crime show like Criminal Minds.

5/5 - (2 votes)