How to Become a CPA

| Accounting.com Staff Modified on April 15, 2022

How to Become a CPA

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Certified public accountant (CPAs) typically earn above-average salaries and enjoy strong demand in the job market. Businesses of all sizes require their services. As such, CPAs have the flexibility to seek out advanced roles that match their preferences.

A CPA is a licensed provider of professional accounting and financial management services. Their main duties include preparing financial statements and tax returns, performing audits, and advising employers or clients on financial decisions.

For those wondering how to become a CPA, the process begins with a bachelor's degree, culminating with a CPA license. Candidates must first pass a challenging four-section test known as the Uniform CPA Examination. This guide explains the entire CPA journey in detail.

Crunch the Data: Education | Credentials | Experience | FAQs

Steps to a Public Accounting Career

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree. CPA education requirements include a bachelor's degree and at least 150 credit-hours of coursework. You do not need to major in accounting or business, though it is recommended. If you major in another subject, you must complete a minimum number of accounting-related credits as specified by your state's accounting board.
  2. Consider Graduate School. Adding a master's degree may boost your chances of success on the CPA exam. According to the CPA Journal, first-time test-takers with master's degrees have much higher pass rates than those with just a bachelor's. Data from 2019 shows that 58.3% of first-time test-takers with graduate degrees earned passing grades. Meanwhile, bachelor's degree-holders passed at just a 48.8% rate.
  3. Pass the CPA Examination. All U.S. jurisdictions require candidates to pass the CPA exam issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The test consists of four parts. In most states, test-takers have 18 months from the time they pass the first section to pass the other three.
  4. Obtain Your License. The post-examination process for obtaining CPA licensure varies among states. Many jurisdictions require accountants who have passed the CPA exam to obtain at least one year of professional experience. Some state accounting boards also specify particular types of experience, such as auditing.
  5. Renew and Maintain Licensure. States generally require CPAs to renew their licenses every 1-2 years. Continuing education usually counts among renewal requirements. In many jurisdictions, continuing education programs must include specified proportions of professional ethics content.
According to the CPA Journal, first-time test-takers with master's degrees have much higher pass rates than those with just a bachelor's.

CPA Education Requirements

CPA candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree and additional educational qualifications. Each state sets its own educational criteria for the CPA credential. But most states require aspiring CPAs to earn 150 credits — or about 30 credits beyond a typical bachelor’s program.

To meet these requirements, many students earn a master’s in accounting. Some schools offer that award both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in accounting. However, becoming a CPA does not require a graduate degree. Instead, some individuals earn a graduate-level certificate to meet credit requirements.

Earning an accredited accounting degree prepares students to pass the CPA exam and obtain licensure. Many CPAs also pursue a specialization, which may require additional training and credentials. Professionals can pursue this training through professional organizations and certificate programs.

Certifications and Licensure for Public Accountants

CPAs hold professional licenses that boost their employability and elevate their prestige. The designation may open doors to a broader range of professional opportunities. It can also boost earning potential, improve job security, and allow access to higher-level roles.

The sections below explain licensure, credentialing, and continuing education processes for aspiring CPAs.

Required Credentials

To practice as a CPA, you must hold a CPA license through your state licensing board. Licensure differs from CPA certification. Certification simply means you have passed the CPA exam and qualify for the next steps in the licensing process. Licenses are issued by state accounting boards and require additional actions and professional development hours to maintain.

You can work in accounting roles without a license provided you have the necessary knowledge and skills. However, you may face limitations on your employment options and advancement potential. Non-licensed accountants often practice in areas of limited scope or under a CPA. Examples include bookkeeping, accounts payable, and accounts receivable.

The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) is a valuable resource for accountants planning to pursue licensure. NASBA offers information and links to the 55 jurisdictional accountancy boards that operate in the United States. Consult the board specific to the jurisdiction where you plan to work for details on local licensure requirements.

Optional and Continuing Education

Many CPAs earn additional certificates to bolster their career prospects. Accountants can pursue certificates from professional organizations, such as the Institute of Internal Auditors and the Institute of Management Accountants.

The time commitment for these credentials varies, but most require candidates to have at least six months of professional CPA experience. Many employers value the specialized skills demonstrated by these certificates.

Most states require CPAs to complete continuing education credits annually to maintain their certification. However, credit requirements vary by state. Most CPAs devote at least 40 hours per year to continuing education. CPAs can pursue continuing education through professional organizations and colleges, both in person and online.

Required Experience for a CPA

CPA exam candidates do not need formal work experience to take the test. However, those who pass the test need to acquire experience before qualifying for full licensure. As with other aspects of the licensure process, specific experience requirements vary among states.

According to the AICPA, the majority of U.S. jurisdictions offer licensure paths to candidates with two years of relevant professional experience. Most states accept general accounting experience acquired in roles open to all accounting professionals.

Accounting internships undertaken in school do not normally qualify toward experience-based CPA requirements. However, these opportunities still offer considerable professional development and networking opportunities.

Should I Become a CPA?

According to a 2017 NASBA article, there are many distinct benefits of earning a CPA license, including:

  • Greater prestige and improved access to appealing career opportunities
  • Higher career ceilings in terms of promotions and responsibility levels
  • Superior job security
  • More job satisfaction
  • Better overall earning potential

Those wondering how to become a CPA should understand the path is not easy. Historical pass rates sit around 50% for each of the four sections on the CPA exam.

For some accounting professionals, the challenging path is worth the rewards. For others, the necessary effort does not make sense in the context of their overall career goals.

Historical pass rates sit around 50% for each of the four sections on the CPA exam.

In either case, remember that having a CPA license expands employment opportunities. For example, some law enforcement agencies hire CPAs to investigate financial crimes. Aspiring accounting professionals seeking to maximize their options generally choose to pursue licensure.

The Job Hunt

CPAs generally benefit from ongoing demand in the job market. The profession's future looks stable: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 7% job growth for accountants and auditors from 2020-2030.

Licensed accountants can seek employment opportunities in many places beyond generic career websites like Indeed, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor. Examples include:

This resource lists openings for finance, business, and management jobs. Users can create job alerts and search by sector, qualification level, and salary range.

The AAA hosts hundreds of postings for CPA jobs along with openings for accountants. It also lists categorized openings in other specialized areas, such as accounting education.

This job board appeals particularly to accountants with international career aspirations. It lists openings in 19 global markets throughout North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

Job-seekers can apply for jobs, upload their resumes, and receive job alerts through this free platform.

Read more tips on job searching:

Upward Mobility

Experienced CPAs have significant advancement potential. Two high-level accounting roles include financial controllers and chief financial officers (CFOs).

Financial controllers head accounting departments in private enterprises. In nonprofit and government agencies, they are known as comptrollers. These senior professionals supervise accountants and work with top executives in directing organizational finances. Some controllers earn graduate degrees in finance or business administration to supplement their CPA backgrounds.

CFOs often have backgrounds in management accounting. However, some are former CPAs with advanced business administration or financial management degrees and experience. These C-suite professionals supervise and direct their organization's financial activities.

Both roles come with strong earning potential. According to PayScale, financial controllers earned average salaries of $85,740 per year, while CFOs earned $137,290 per year as of October 2021.

Questions About CPA Requirements

What degree do you need to become a CPA?

CPA education requirements include a four-year bachelor's degree and 150 total credits. You do not need to be an accounting, business, or finance major. However, your degree must include a minimum number of credits in accounting and business subjects.

How long does it take to start a CPA career?

The educational and experience requirements for CPA licensure typically take at least 5-6 years to complete. Candidates from non-accounting backgrounds and those who earn their degrees on part-time schedules face longer timelines.

What credentials do you need along the CPA career path?

Qualifying for CPA licensure includes two main credentials. First, you will need at least a four-year bachelor's degree and additional credits. Some candidates complete graduate degrees or a certificate to fulfill the educational requirements. Second, you must achieve certification by passing the CPA exam.

Are CPA jobs in demand?

The demand for CPAs remains stable. The BLS projects 135,000 job openings for accountants and auditors from 2020-2030 or 7% employment growth.

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Lizzette Matos, CPA

Lizzette Matos, CPA

Lizzette Matos is a certified public accountant in New York state. She earned a bachelor of science in finance and accounting from New York University. Matos began her career at Ernst & Young, where she audited a diverse set of companies, primarily in consumer products and media and entertainment. She has worked in the private industry as an accountant for law firms and ITOCHU Corporation, an international conglomerate that manages over 20 subsidiaries and affiliates. Matos stays up to date on changes in the accounting industry through educational courses.

Lizzette Matos is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.


Featured Image: Stephen Zeigler / The Image Bank / Getty Images

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