How to Become a CPA
When the time comes to leave school and decide on a future career path, it can sometimes seem that there are too many options to choose from or that there are many different ways to do the same thing.
Becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) is a popular career with budding accountants, but the minefield of education, licensing and ongoing learning can make it seem impossible to achieve.
If you are considering becoming a CPA, this handy guide will help to break down the seemingly endless requirements for how to become a certified accountant (CPA) into nine easy-to-understand stages, so that your dream job in the accountancy field may be closer than you think.
You will learn what the requirements are to become a CPA and how long it takes to become a CPA.
What Is a CPA?
A CPA is the abbreviated term for a certified public accountant. It is different from a public accountant in the respect that people who hold CPA designation are registered and licensed with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
Chartered public accountants work in all areas of business, including both public and corporate accounting, as well as having the option to progress in their career to the position of chief financial officer.
CPAs have specialized accounting knowledge in areas such as:
- Corporate recovery
- Forensic accounting
- Internal and external auditing
- Risk assessment
- Financial accounting
Why Do People Want to Become CPAs?
So, how many CPAs are there in the USA?
According to nasba.org, in 2020 there were 658,267 actively licensed CPAs.
The decision to become a CPA is usually made because of increased job opportunities.
There are many more positions available for certified public accountants than for non-certified accountants, which also means more opportunities for career progression.
Another reason that individuals often choose to become CPAs is because of the salary differences.
On average, a certified public accountant will earn 10–15% more than their non-certified counterparts.
But how can you get a CPA license?
To get the CPA license you need to pass the Uniform CPA examination. The overall passing rate is 50%.
Can You Become a CPA Online?
The CPA exam is not available to take online. Tests are administered at designated Prometric testing centers.
There are also work-experience requirements forming part of the CPA certification process which, understandably, cannot be completed online.
However, it is possible to complete other aspects of the process online before applying to sit the CPA exam.
For example, there are many universities and colleges which now offer online degree courses which fulfill the education requirements of CPA certification.
You can also find study courses and sample assessments online in readiness for sitting the real thing.
How to Become a CPA Without a Degree in Accounting
The CPA education requirements in most states require someone who is applying for licensing as a CPA to hold the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.
So you might be wondering if you can become a CPA without a degree in accounting.
You do not necessarily have to have an accounting degree, but there will be a minimum number of credit hours required where individuals will need to have studied an accounting course.
If you are not studying accounting, but still wish to certify as a CPA, there are ways around it.
Some will choose to do additional courses alongside their degree course to fulfill the accounting credit hours requirement needed to get the CPA qualification.
How to Become a CPA in 9 Steps
1. Fulfill Citizenship and Age Requirements
To be eligible to study for CPA certification, individuals must be over the age of 18. It is also a requirement for applicants to be US citizens who are eligible for a social security number.
Those who do not fulfill the citizenship requirements will still be able to study to become public accountants, but they will not be able to be certified or licensed.
2. Fulfill Educational Requirements
Almost all states will require a minimum of 150 college-study credit hours.
Some of these hours will need to be from completing an accounting course, but the exact number will vary from state to state.
If you are a finance or economics major, for example, you will probably have already completed a certain number of accounting hours, but you may need to take additional accounting courses to fulfill the requirements of your state.
3. Start Studying
Your CPA-specific study can be done at the same time as testing, but it is a good idea to have started studying before applying for the tests.
This will take some of the pressure off when it comes to revising and help to give you a firm foundation of knowledge to build on.
People who study in advance have a higher chance of passing the CPA examination in fewer attempts.
4. Take a Review Course
Once you feel that you have a good grasp of the exam material, a review course can help to pinpoint any weak areas or sections which perhaps require further study.
Picking a good review course can make the difference between passing on the first attempt or not.
There are a variety of course options to choose from, so you are sure to find one which matches your personal learning style and doesn’t break the bank.
5. Apply for the CPA Exam
Once you feel that you are ready to take the CPA exam, you will need to apply.
There are four parts to the test and it is recommended that you space them to allow yourself sufficient study time before each one.
Once you have taken and passed your first exam, you will have 18 months to take and pass the other three.
To pass each section, candidates will need to score at least 75 out of 99.
Note: If you do not pass all four sections within the 18 months following the first exam, you will be required to start again from the first section.
6. Pass the AICPA Ethics Exam
Although this exam isn’t required in all states, it is a common part of the process to becoming a licensed CPA.
The AICPA ethics exam covers topics such as ethical duties and the ethical obligations of a certified public accountant.
Note: States which don’t require individuals to take the AICPA ethics exam may ask for alternative ethics papers to be completed.
7. Fulfill Work Experience Requirements
Work experience is an essential part of the process of becoming a fully licensed certified public accountant, although the exact amount of work experience required differs from state to state.
Generally, the minimum length of work experience required would be six months, with some states asking for up to two years.
The work experience completed during this time will be carried out under the supervision of a fully qualified CPA and may be required to fulfill certain criteria.
Some states will ask that candidates have experience in specific areas of knowledge such as auditing or taxation.
8. Apply for Licensing
Once you have passed all of your exams and fulfilled the work experience requirements for your state, there is only one thing left to do: Apply for licensing.
There will be a fee for this which will vary from state to state. The application for licensing will be done through your state's board of accountancy.
Note: Some states may also require that a criminal background check is completed when applications for licensing are submitted.
9. Congratulations, You Are Now a CPA
Once your licensing certificate has arrived, you can work as a CPA in whichever state you are licensed.
This isn’t the end of learning, however, as there will be annual continuing education and licensing requirements which will help to ensure that you are always up-to-date with any changes in legislation and ethical practices.
The exact details of these continuing education requirements will vary from state to state.
Note: To work as a CPA in another state, you may be required to fulfill slightly different criteria and apply for licensing there.
Will the Process Vary in My State?
Although the process is essentially the same throughout the United States, some states have their variations.
For example, the AICPA ethics exam is not required for all states and some will have alternative ethics courses which they require to be completed.
Examples of state differences:
Ohio – If you are looking to become a CPA in Ohio, you must complete a full background check before your application can be approved.
California – If you would like to become a CPA in California, you are required to have 120 semester units with 24 semester hours in accounting and a further 24 semester hours in business-related courses.
Virginia – If you want to become a CPA in Virginia, there is no minimum age requirement for taking the exam. There is also no requirement to be an employee or resident in Virginia.
When you start along the road to becoming a certified public accountant, it may feel as though you will never get there.
Although the length of study and licensing requirements make it a lengthy process to join this particular employment sector, it is worth it once you get your certification.
The opportunities for professional advancement and continued learning mean that you will always have something new to aim for and fresh prospects to sink your teeth into, as well as a well paid and satisfying career.