How to Become a Certified Public Accountant


Updated May 3, 2024

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CPAs must fulfill certain criteria before sitting for the CPA exam and obtaining a license. Learn about the steps to become a CPA and job opportunities for these professionals. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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What is a CPA? Certified public accountants (CPAs) are accounting specialists with demonstrated accounting proficiency and state licensure. These professionals must satisfy state education and experience requirements and pass the Uniform CPA Examination to obtain licensure.

Top CPAs are knowledgeable and keep up to date with changes in the field. They need time management, critical thinking, and communication skills. This page details the necessary steps to become a CPA and explains what a CPA is.

Steps to a CPA Career

  1. 1

    Review State Requirements

    Each state maintains stipulations for CPA education and work experience requirements. Research these guidelines for the jurisdiction where you plan to work.

  2. 2

    Residency and Age Requirements

    States may have age, residency, and citizenship requirements to sit for the CPA exam. When enrolling for the test, you may need to present documents that verify you are a U.S. citizen and over 18.

  3. 3

    Education Requirements

    Prospective CPAs must hold at least a bachelor's degree and have completed a total of 150 college-level credits. Students may need to take additional courses after graduating to satisfy this stipulation, as bachelor's degrees typically only require 120 credits.

  4. 4

    Specific Class Requirements

    Though states do not generally require CPAs to hold accounting degrees, they do stipulate that prospective license-holders complete specific courses in the field. Thus, completing an accounting program can ensure you take the classes required for CPA licensure, which usually include a mixture of business, accounting, economics, and ethics courses.

  5. 5

    Exam Requirements

    Qualified examinees must pass each of the four CPA exam sections. Residents of specific states may need to pass an additional ethics exam.

  6. 6

    Experience Requirements

    Prospective licensees must demonstrate their practical skills through 1-2 years of relevant work experience. States usually allow experience in both public and private sectors.

  7. 7

    Continuing Professional Education (CPE)

    Licensed CPAs must complete CPE requirements to renew their credentials. States set their own requirements for the specific number of CPE units each CPA must complete each renewal cycle.

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Required Education for a CPA

CPA candidates must hold a bachelor's degree and complete a number of accounting and business courses. Accounting program enrollees can pursue concentrations like auditing, international tax, or forensic accounting to specialize their knowledge and work in specific subfields.

Though no state requires graduate-level education for CPA licensure, earning a master's degree in accounting can help prospective CPAs fulfill the 150-credit education requirement. Holding an advanced degree can help accountants boost their earning potential and qualify them for upper-level roles.

Required Credentials for CPAs

To earn CPA licensure, candidates in every state must hold a bachelor's degree and complete 150 credits of college-level coursework. However, the number of credits required to sit for the CPA exam varies by state — some jurisdictions require the full 150 credits for prospective CPAs to sit for the test, while other states only stipulate the completion of 120 credits before the exam.

Prospective CPAs who meet this educational requirement and other state prerequisites can start the CPA exam process through the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA).

Signing up for the exam involves submitting an application, transcripts, and application fees. Approved applicants receive an authorization to test, which allows them to sign up for one part of the test within a certain number of months.

Previously, CPA examinees in every state had 18 months to pass all four sections of the test. As of 2024, NASBA lets states open a 30-month window for test-takers, a timeline which begins on the date they pass the first section. Investigate your state's requirements to determine how long your testing timeline runs.

People who successfully pass the CPA exam and meet all other state requirements can apply for licensure. Licensed professionals must complete CPE credits and pay a renewal fee to their state's board of accountancy.

Optional Certifications and Degrees

CPAs can expand their learning by pursuing additional degrees or certifications. Professionals can gain niche knowledge through additional education, which may help them pursue specific career paths. This expertise can lead to higher earning potential or advanced roles.

Certification organizations offer multiple credentials for CPAs, including certified bank auditor (CBA), certified fraud examiner (CFE), and certified internal auditor (CIA). These certifications may have different prerequisites than CPA licensure, including master's degrees or multiple years of relevant experience. These credentials also typically require application fees, exam fees, and renewal fees, which can total more than $1,000 per certification.

Required Experience for a CPA

Each state maintains their own requirements about how much work experience prospective CPAs need before sitting for the CPA exam. Prospective licensees often need to work for 1-2 years in jobs that use accounting, attest, compilation, consulting, financial advisory, management advisory, and tax skills.

Working professionals must also pay attention to their sector. While most states allow candidates to work in private or public settings, not every jurisdiction accepts academic work experience. Employees can usually work part time or full time to meet the experience requirements. A licensed CPA supervisor may need to submit documentation verifying a candidate's experience.

Should I Become a CPA?

Accountants who wish to increase their earning potential and strengthen their career prospects may benefit from CPA designation. According to Payscale, as of April 2024, noncertified accountants make an average salary of $57,430, while CPAs earn $76,960 annually — nearly $20,000 higher than noncertified accountants. However, prospective CPAs should consider the additional time and cost constraints related to obtaining licensure.

CPAs can have additional stress compared to other accountants: They often need to know a variety of accounting rules while working tight deadlines in the tax season. However, CPAs often have additional career opportunities, as employers may require accounting managers to hold CPA licensure.

The Job Hunt

Job-seekers can use multiple methods to find a job, including job fairs, networking, and school career centers. Local CPA organizations sometimes hold events for current and future CPAs. These meetings can offer accounting-focused networking, including learning about career opportunities. Current students can also utilize their summers to find internships, which can improve their resumes or lead to full-time roles after graduation. The job boards below offer a good starting point to find CPA careers and review job requirements.

This website focuses on accounting jobs and offers filters based on location and job function. Candidates upload their resumes, which employers can use to solicit applications for open positions.

The AAA, a community of accountants in academia, offers research and networking opportunities. The association's website includes a job board for accounting professionals.

CalCPA, an organization for California CPAs, offers an accounting-focused job board. CPA organizations in other states may offer similar opportunities to source local careers.

Companies can post job openings on Indeed. Accountants across the U.S. can find available positions, even filtering for remote accounting opportunities by searching "remote" in the location field.

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Related Career Paths

CPAs can pursue a career as a tax accountant. Tax accountants specialize in rules regarding taxation and help file tax returns for individuals and businesses. These professionals can recommend how to manage assets to reduce current and future tax liabilities.

  • Tax accountants may file quarterly taxes, prepare federal and state taxes, and project future tax liabilities.
  • This career usually requires a bachelor's degree and CPA licensure.
  • Tax accountants make an average salary of $60,970, according to April 2024 Payscale data.

Budget analysts are another career avenue for CPAs. These analysts review financial data and create budgets for public and private organizations. Individuals with analytical, communication, and organizational skills may thrive in these roles.

  • Budget analysts work with managers and executives to review internal finances and plan future financial quarters. They review finances to monitor deviations from the budget.
  • These jobs usually require a bachelor's degree; some roles may also require a CPA.
  • Budget analysts make an average salary of $66,630, according to April 2024 Payscale data.

Questions About the CPA Career Path

What does a CPA do?

CPAs use their knowledge of accounting and taxation to help businesses maintain their financial records. They can apply their expertise to multiple roles, including budget analyst, tax accountant, and auditor.

Is a CPA better than an accountant?

Generally, CPAs have a higher salary and additional job opportunities compared to accountants. While noncertified accountants can qualify for entry-level jobs, managerial positions may require a CPA designation.

Is the CPA exam hard?

The CPA exam can be challenging, often requiring months of studying. The four-part exam requires a minimum score of 75 in each section, and you must pass all sections within the same 18- to 30-month window.

Is becoming a CPA actually worth it?

Holding CPA licensure can boost your earning potential, meaning the time you spend fulfilling your state's requirements and studying for the exam can lead to a positive return on investment. According to Payscale data from April 2024, the average wage for CPAs is almost $20,000 higher than the average wage for noncertified accountants — CPAs average $76,960, while noncertified accountants average $57,430.

Page last reviewed April 11, 2024.

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