ACA vs CIMA vs ACCA
If you decide to pursue accountancy as a career, one of the first and most important choices you must make is which qualification will get you there.
The key factors in this choice are:
- The type of organisation you want to work for
- The salary you are interested in
- Your intended job title
- The form of career progression you would like to see
- Your employer’s qualification of choice
This article will look at the three most recognised accountancy qualifications through the ACA, CIMA and ACCA organisations.
All three are globally accepted but place their focus on different accounting skills.
To find out more about a career in accountancy, further advice for graduates is available.
The ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant) qualification is organised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
Accountants who hold the ACA qualification automatically become an Associate of the ICAEW.
The ACA course has four elements:
- 15 ACA learning modules
- Practical work experience
- Professional development
- Ethics and professional scepticism training
The learning modules include:
- Certificate level – Accounting, assurance, business and finance, law, management information, principles of taxation
- Professional level – Business planning: taxation, business strategy, audit and assurance, financial accounting and reporting, financial management, tax compliance
- Advanced level – Corporate reporting, strategic business management, case study
The practical work experience must last for at least 450 days and include experience in one of the following areas:
- Audit and assurance
- Financial management
- Information technology
The professional development element is usually completed as part of the practical work experience and must demonstrate that you have improved across seven areas that include communication, technical competence and decision-making.
Finally, the ethics and professional scepticism element of the ACA qualification requires you to demonstrate your knowledge of the ICAEW Code of Ethics, practical applications of ethical conduct and decision-making, plus honesty and transparency in your business dealings.
The ACA qualification is usually gained through a three-year training contract with an ICAEW-accredited company.
For more information, read What is the ACA?
The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) is a tiered qualification, beginning with the Certificate in Business Accounting then progressing to awarding CIMA membership and the title of Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA).
The CIMA qualification framework can be broken down as follows:
- Certificate Level – CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting; modules include the fundamentals of business economics, management accounting, financial accounting, and ethics, corporate governance and business law.
- Operational Level – CIMA Diploma in Management Accounting; modules include managing finance in a digital world, management accounting, financial reporting and a case study exam.
- Management Level – CIMA Advanced Diploma in Management Accounting; modules include managing performance, advanced management accounting, advanced financial reporting and a case study exam.
- Strategic Level – CIMA membership (ACMA/FCMA) and CGMA designation; modules include strategic management, risk management, financial strategy, a case study exam and an assessment of practical experience requirements (PER).
Entry to CIMA accounting studies is available at multiple points. You may begin as a school leaver, as an undergraduate, after completing your graduate degree or later with a master’s degree. Your level of education will decide at which point you enter the CIMA qualification framework.
For more information, read the 2021 guide to CIMA.
As with the ACA, the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualification generally takes three years to complete and contains both practical work experience and examinations.
There is, however, flexibility to take longer than three years if needed to complete the qualification.
The ACCA qualification has five modules, including some aspects where you choose an option:
- Applied knowledge – Accountant in business, management accounting and financial accounting
- Applied skills – Corporate and business law, performance management, taxation, financial reporting, audit and assurance, as well as financial management
- Strategic professional – Strategic business leadership, strategic business reporting, advanced financial management (optional), advanced performance management (optional), advanced taxation (optional) and advanced audit and assurance (optional)
- Ethics and professional skills – Ethics and professionalism, personal effectiveness, innovation and scepticism, commercial awareness, leadership and team working, communication and interpersonal skills, data analytics, case study and self-assessment
- Practical experience requirement (PER) – Includes 36 months supervised experience in relevant employment, the completion of nine performance objectives and the submission of a digital diary outlining your work experience
Once you have passed all the exams, including the practical experience requirement, you will be granted full membership of ACCA.
Five years continuous ACCA membership automatically entitles you to an ACCA fellowship.
To find out more, read ACCA Qualifications: A Guide.
All three qualifications are recognised globally, so how do you decide which is the right one for you?
Here are the key differences between ACA, CIMA and ACCA accountancy qualifications:
Each of the awarding bodies – ACA, CIMA and ACCA – provide qualifications in accountancy, but with a varying focus on the type of organisation you may work for and your specialism; each qualification will best train you for different career paths within the field of accountancy.
The ACA qualification awards the title ‘Chartered Accountant’. This is often seen as the most difficult and most technical qualification of the three.
ACA qualified accountants are therefore sought out for detail-oriented positions such as reporting and internal audit.
They are most prevalent amongst the Big 4 accounting firms:
For more on these companies, read The Big 4 Accounting Firms.
Of the three awarding bodies, ACA qualified accountants are most likely to work in a public practice.
Other career paths suitable for ACA qualified accountants include corporate finance, forensic accounting and tax.
Should you complete the full CIMA training, you will be awarded with the title ‘Chartered Global Management Accountant’.
A management accountant has the same level of accounting and finance knowledge as a chartered accountant, but their role is more focused on strategy and management, generally within a commercial or industry setting.
Analysis of business data is an important aspect of a management accountant’s role, as is the provision of advice on a business’s direction.
The full ACCA qualification awards the title ‘Chartered Certified Accountant’.
With obvious similarities to the ACA qualification, the main factor that sets ACCA training apart from ACA is the diversity of accounting areas covered.
The ACCA qualification is suitable for both employment within public practice or in a commercial setting.
To work towards the ACA qualification, it is generally necessary to obtain a training agreement with an ICAEW-authorised company.
The entry requirements to obtain such a training agreement are any of the following:
- ICAEW Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business
- AAT training up to level four
- Minimum two A-levels and three GCSE passes, or equivalent
- At least 112 UCAS points covering both AS and A2 levels (or international equivalents)
- A first or 2:1 degree, although some employers may accept a 2:2
The alternative to obtaining a training agreement is to register as an independent student.
The entry requirements for this route are GCSEs in maths and English at A*–C plus two A-levels (or international equivalents).
Entry requirements for the CIMA qualification vary depending on which level of the framework you begin at.
To study the CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting, there are no entry requirements.
To proceed further through the CIMA qualification framework, you must have passed the CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting, hold a degree in business or accounting or be an AAT Technician at diploma level 4.
The minimum entry requirements for the ACCA qualification are two A-levels and three GCSEs, including English and maths (or equivalents).
For individuals without the minimum entry requirements, it may be possible to begin accounting studies through the ACCA foundation qualifications, such as ACCA Diploma in Financial and Management Accounting or ACCA Certificate in Taxation.
The costs quoted here are current for 2021 but may change in future years.
The usual ACA qualification costs are as follows:
- Student fees – £180 + VAT per year
- Tuition fees – Vary depending on the provider
- Exam fees – Certificate level £72, professional level £103, advanced level £175, case study level £267
- Learning material – Costs vary depending on the level of your study. In 2021, certificate level is £33 per module, professional ranges from £48 to £88 per module and advanced £86 per module
Typical CIMA qualification costs are:
- Registration fees – One-off registration fee of £77, management accountant’s gateway £77, CIMA professional gateway assessment £425, CIMA Master's gateway assessment £425
- Subscription fees – Student £120, student who has passed Strategic Case Study exam £275, new student £0 (free)
- UK exam fees – CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting £100 per exam and CIMA Professional Qualification ranges from £115 to £289 per exam
The usual ACCA qualification costs are as follows:
- Registration fee – £89
- Annual subscription fee – £112
- Applied Skills fees per exam – Early entry £123, standard entry £130, late entry £332
- Ethics and Professional Skills module – £78
- Strategic Professional (essential modules) fees per exam – Early entry £210, standard entry £222, late entry £358
- Strategic Professional (chosen optional modules) fees per exam – Early entry £164, standard entry £173, late entry £358
- Strategic Business Reporting fees per exam – Early entry £164, standard entry £173, late entry £358
Practical experience when training in accounting will generally mean work experience through an organisation accredited by the awarding body.
The practical experience required to reach full accreditation for each awarding body is:
- ACA – 450 days
- CIMA – Three years
- ACCA – Three years
All three accounting qualifications discussed in this article – ACA, CIMA and ACCA – are well-respected and globally accepted paths into an accountancy career.
Deciding the best one for you depends on your specific needs and intended career path.
Are you interested in working in public practice? If so, ACA and ACCA are more likely to offer you the correct training.
Do you want to work in a strategic finance role, possibly managerial, within a commercial setting? CIMA is your first choice, with ACCA coming up second.
Other factors are likely to affect your choice too. For instance, are you a school leaver or a graduate? What qualification and accounting knowledge do you already have? Can you agree on a training agreement with an employer, or do you wish to register as an independent student?
Build a complete picture of what you need, where you are and what you want for your future to pinpoint the right accounting qualification for you.