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A certified public accountant (CPA) is an accounting professional whose knowledge and abilities meet elevated, standardized requirements. CPAs can also perform professional functions that uncertified accountants cannot legally offer.
The National Association of State Boards of Accounting (NASBA) reported over 665,000 active CPAs in the United States as of August 2022. During the 2022 calendar year, approximately 67,000 candidates sat for the Uniform CPA Examination.
Government-aligned state agencies issue CPA credentials in the United States. Your exact path to CPA licensure may differ depending on where you live. This guide covers general CPA licensing details and standards followed throughout the nation.
Why Get Certified as a CPA?
Enhanced Career Options
Professionals with CPA designations can practice as generalists or specialists. Specialization examples include auditing, financial accounting, and managerial accounting. CPAs are also not limited to accounting careers: They can become financial planners and advisors, business analysts, actuaries, and more.
Higher Earning Potential
According to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), licensed CPAs tend to command salaries 10-15% higher than their unlicensed counterparts — up to $1 million more than their uncertified peers over their respective careers.
Credibility and Prestige
CPA certification signals advanced accounting skills and a commitment to the profession.
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How Do You Qualify for CPA Certification?
CPA certification requirements cover the "three E's:" education, experience, and examinations.
To acquire certification, CPA candidates need at least a bachelor's degree and the equivalent of 150 semester hours of college credit. One year of relevant professional experience in academia, government, private industry, or public practice is also a common standard. These professionals must also pass the Uniform CPA Examination.
Some states allow candidates to sit for the CPA exam before they have graduated from college. Others require accountants to pass an additional professional ethics exam to qualify for licensure.
The sections and subsections below cover each of the "three E's" in greater detail.
States require applicants to have at least 150 semester hours of college education or the equivalent to qualify for CPA certification. Candidates also need at least a bachelor's degree.
Though many states do not require candidates to hold an accounting degree, educational requirements usually include a minimum number of upper-level accounting courses. Thus, earning an accounting bachelor's can help you fulfill the educational guidelines for your state. Many jurisdictions also stipulate that aspiring CPAs complete credits in related areas, such as economics, finance, business administration, and/or business management.
States maintain different requirements for whether CPA candidates can sit for the CPA exam before completing their degree. For example, Hawaii only requires examinees to be within 120 days of finishing their bachelor's program, while Arizona requires candidates to complete their degree before applying for the test. CPA candidates should consult state-specific eligibility information to learn more.
States generally require CPA certification candidates to have at least one year of relevant experience. Most states define one year of experience as 1,800–2,000 hours of work. Applicants must obtain that experience within a specified time frame.
Experience must also generally include one or more of the following duties:
- Financial or management advisory services
- Preparation of financial statements
Some states — like California — also accept the teaching of accounting courses at the postsecondary level as relevant professional experience.
What Does the CPA Exam Cover?
The Uniform CPA Examination consists of four sections. You have four hours to complete each section. The format is computerized, and you can take a 15-minute break during each section. Test-takers sit for the exam at a designated testing center. The CPA exam is not an open-book test.
The four sections cover:
- Auditing and attestation (AUD)
- Business environment and concepts (BEC)
- Financial accounting and reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
States generally allow candidates to sit for each section individually and in any order. You can also take two, three, or all four of the exam sections in a single session.
Exam questions come in three formats: multiple choice, task-based simulations, and written response questions. Multiple choice is the most common format, while written response questions are the least common.
The following table summarizes the exam's format and contents:
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Scoring the Exam
The CPA exam uses a weighted scoring system that accounts for question difficulty. Sections that include only multiple choice and task-based simulations split the weighting equally between the two question types. An exception applies to the business environments and concepts section, which is the only portion of the exam to include written response questions.
The AICPA scores all exams. Scores are released on a rolling basis, dependent on when the AICPA receives your exam file. Schedules change annually, and the AICPA updates its score release timetable accordingly.
Note that you must obtain passing scores on all four individual sections of the exam to qualify for CPA certification.
|Section||Multiple Choice Scoring Weight||Task-Based Simulation Scoring Weight||Written Response Scoring Weight||Score Range||Passing Score|
How Do You Register for the CPA Exam?
The registration process begins when a candidate applies to NASBA for approval to sit for the CPA exam. At this stage, you must furnish materials like academic transcripts and any other state-level requirements that apply. NASBA will review your credentials. If approved, you receive a Notice to Schedule (NTS).
Your NTS is delivered online through your NASBA account. It includes a list of available dates, times, and locations. Options vary by year and state. They also depend on when you apply: Early applicants generally enjoy a wider array of choices.
Additional requirements vary by state. These variables extend to areas such as U.S. citizenship and state residency. You may also need a U.S. Social Security number (SSN) to sit for the exam or finalize your CPA certification. For instance, Alaska does not have any citizenship, residency, or SSN requirements, while North Carolina requires all three.
For additional state-specific information, refer to NASBA's CPA exam portal.
Paying for the Exam
NASBA charges application and registration fees for the CPA exam. First-time applicants pay an application fee, plus exam fees for each of the four sections. Re-exam applicants pay a reduced registration fee, plus the standard exam fees for each section.
- $170 application fee (first-time applicants)
- $85 registration fee (re-exam applicants)
- $238.15 exam fee (per section of the test)
As with other aspects of CPA exam planning, refer to NASBA for state-specific information.
How Can You Prepare for the CPA Exam?
The best way to prepare for the CPA exam is to start studying early. Below, we list five tips to help you succeed.
Make a Study Schedule
Start preparing ahead of your exam date. Create a schedule to ensure you have dedicated study time.
Familiarize Yourself With the Exam Format
The CPA exam uses a fixed format with a set number of test sections and question formats. Familiarizing yourself with question styles in each of the four exam sections can help you know what to expect when sitting for each test.
Take Practice Tests
You can access free practice tests and sample exam questions online. Taking practice tests can boost your test-taking skills, familiarize you with the exam structure, and help you apply key accounting and business concepts.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
After each practice test, record your scores for each question format. If you notice a pattern, divide the question formats according to your strengths and weaknesses. Set aside extra time to practice the areas you find more challenging.
Research and Apply Difficult Concepts
Make a list of difficult concepts and research each topic thoroughly. Apply these concepts to real-life scenarios to help you understand these complex ideas.
Practice Exams and Study Resources
Common Questions About the CPA License
Is CPA a degree or certification?
CPA — a term used for both the certification and the professionals holding the credential — is the only officially approved accounting and auditing credential in the United States. Becoming a CPA typically requires 150 college credits and approximately 2,000 hours of accounting experience working with a licensed CPA professional.
Is it hard to get CPA certified?
The CPA certification process can be lengthy and challenging. The difficulty of the CPA certification process depends on your accounting skills and exam prep. Pass rates in 2023 for the four exam sections range from 41-58%.
What are the CPA testing windows?
CPA testing windows last 18 months. Once you are verified for the CPA exam, you must pass all four sections of the test within that window.
How often can you take the CPA exam?
The AICPA administers the four sections of the CPA exam on a rolling basis throughout the year. You must pass all four parts of the test in an 18-month period. Within those 18 months, there are several windows to retake tests, but you cannot retake a section in the same window. After receiving your test scores, you must wait 24 hours to reapply for the same section.
Page last reviewed June 27, 2023
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