What are the best accounting certifications? There are so many out there, so it can sound like alphabet soup to the uninitiated. There’s the CPA, the CMA, the CFA, the EA, and the CIA. What are they, and which one is the best? If you’re ready to learn more about the different accounting certifications, keep reading.
If you’re new to the industry and still trying to find your path in the accounting world, it can be confusing and overwhelming to pick between all the different certification options. It’s a significant investment, so understandably, you must search first. Each of the designations offers a different specialty for your potential career.
The accounting certification you choose will determine the type of work you do and how much you get paid. But which one is the best? Does it make sense to get more than one certification, or should you pick one of them to pursue? In this article, we will look at the accounting certifications considered the top in the field so that you can decide which one, or combo, is the best fit for your blossoming career.
Best Accounting Certifications
We understand that it can be overwhelming seeing all the different accounting certifications available. We will review each one for you here to help you understand more about them. Then, you can make an informed decision about which certificate is best for you. We’re also going to review whether it’s ever beneficial to get more than one. Are you ready? Let’s explore.
Certified Public Accountant – CPA
The CPA is one of the most well-known accounting certificates available today. Even people outside of the accounting profession have heard of the CPA. If you want to be able to do it all in the accounting industry, then a certified public accountant license is probably your best bet. With this certification, you are licensed by the state jurisdiction of your choice.
Two perks of being a CPA include being able to sign off on audit reports and having the ability to speak on behalf of clients with the Internal Revenue Service. So, the CPA is the most general accounting certification. The content on the CPA Exam is very broad, and there is a wide range of jobs and career paths you can take with this certification. You can also stand to make good money and have job security as a CPA.
However, CPA certification benefits do not come without some extra work. You will need to meet specific CPA requirements to receive your CPA certification. These include citizenship, education, and work experience. Additionally, you will also be required to pass all 4 parts of the CPA Exam.
- Examination: All state boards hold that candidates must pass the AICPA’s Uniform CPA Examination (CPA Exam). However, a limited number of (mostly international) candidates with another accounting credential may be eligible for certain CPA exam exemptions and can take a shortened version called the IQEX.
- Education: Almost every state board expects candidates to earn 150 hours of education with an accounting concentration.
- Experience: Most state boards require candidates to acquire 1-2 years of professional accounting experience.
Chartered Financial Analyst – CFA
A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation will permit you to pursue a more niche area of your accounting career. Individuals with a CFA can work on Wall Street or in other similar investment fund positions. It is absolutely a must-have for security analysts and data managers. Therefore, the CFA will be an advantage to any financial or investment industry career choice.
Also, the CFA allows for a career path that can lead you to company management. The CFA trains you to think analytically about finance, business operations, investing, and more. And while studying for the CFA exam, you will learn everything you need to know to be successful with stocks and other points of investment for yourself and all of your clients.
The path to receiving your CFA certification can be a bit longer because the testing is done much less frequently than the CIA or CPA Exam testing (and here’s more info on the CFA vs. CIA and CPA vs. CFA). Therefore, ensure you have all your qualifications in order and plan for your exam accordingly so you don’t miss the CFA testing deadlines.
Becoming a CFA charter holder requires you to meet these CFA requirements:
- Examination: You must pass the CFA exam, which has 3 levels. Furthermore, the CFA exam is tough and has a pass rate that hovers only around 40-43%. However, you can increase your chances of passing on the first try with one of the best CFA review courses.
- Education: You must have a combination of education or experience, like a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, 4 years of working experience before registration, or be in the final year of your college program.
- Experience: You have to obtain 4 years of relevant professional experience.
Beyond the CFA
Some professionals go even farther beyond the CFA and pursue FINRA credentials like the SIE qualification. For instance, where the CFA exam covers broad content, the SIE exam syllabus is much more focused. Plus, in addition to the SIE qualification, candidates can also pass the related “Series” exams for an even bigger career boost. What’s more, the pass rates are fairly strong, especially if you use one of the best SIE courses, best Series 9/10 study guides, or best Series 99 prep courses on the market.
Certified Management Accountant – CMA
Becoming a Certified Management Accountant, or CMA, means meeting relatively low barriers to entry. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree, passing scores on both CMA exam parts, and 2 years of work experience before you can become certified. If you’re planning on working in industry (corporate accounting) and not public accounting, this is an ideal certification. It’s kind of like a subset of the CPA, so you will see some overlap in the things that they cover.
However, the CMA focuses totally on management accounting, while the CPA only touches on it briefly. Therefore, the CMA adds value in terms of specialization.
As a CMA, you will have the skill set necessary to manage the finances of Fortune 500 companies (and smaller companies too). Additionally, it will also set you up to be a tremendous COO or CFO.
- Examination: You have to pass the CMA exam, which has just 2 parts.
- Education: You simply need a bachelor’s degree from virtually any university around the world.
- Experience: You must acquire two years of relevant accounting experience and complete CMA CPE.
Enrolled Agent – EA
As an enrolled agent, you will receive your designation from the IRS. The EA designation is given once you can prove you are knowledgeable on tax codes and how to apply them. You can work for either the public or a company with the EA designation, although you will be highly specialized in taxation. An enrolled agent is more qualified than a participant in the IRS AFSP but enjoys less flexibility and career potential than a CPA.
Therefore, the EA designation is excellent to get in conjunction with another certification because the EA designation is focused on taxation. The enrolled agent certification pairs nicely with your Certified Public Accounting license since they somewhat overlap with privileges like representing a client in front of the IRS and signing off on preparing tax forms.
If this is what you are searching for, you will need to take the 3-part EA exam given by the IRS, which takes an average of 12 hours to complete.
The IRS created this distinction in 1884, so it’s a few years older than the CPA. Former IRS agents can become enrolled agents without taking the EA exam. But all other candidates will complete the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE), which is more commonly referred to as the EA exam.
If you’ve never worked for the IRS and you are seeking an EA, you must take and pass the EA exam. There are plenty of EA exam dates available year-round, and you can learn the best way to pass the exam with my EA exam tips. Candidates must achieve what the IRS deems to be an EA exam passing score before they can earn the designation.
Moreover, the EA exam pass rates are higher than some other accounting certification exams, like the CPA exam. Plus, if you study with an Enrolled Agent review course such as TaxMama, Gleim EA Review, the Fast Forward Academy, or Surgent EA, your chances of passing the EA exam go up even more. For instance, check out this comparison of Gleim EA vs Surgent EA to learn more about studying for the exam and becoming an Enrolled Agent.
Certified Internal Auditor – CIA
If you plan to center your career around auditing, then you should heavily consider the Certified Internal Auditor certification or CIA. This will enable you to work in a company, advise on processes and procedures, and establish internal control procedures, among other tasks.
- Examination: The biggest hurdle of the CIA application process is passing the CIA exam, which features 3 parts (CIA Part 1, CIA Part 2, and CIA Part 3). The format of the CIA exam varies per part. However, each part includes 100-125 multiple-choice questions, and a CIA passing score is about 75%. Furthermore, the amount of CIA exam study time varies depending on your experience and which review course you pick.
- Education: You must have at least an associate’s degree in any discipline from an accredited university. You can get this requirement waived with 7 years of working experience in internal audit.
- Experience: You need to accumulate at least 1 year of internal audit experience, depending on your education. If you have an associate’s degree or equivalent, you’ll need 5 years of experience.
However, keep in mind that some countries have specific stipulations and fees. For example, the CIA Philippines requirements are slightly unique. So it’s best to check with your local CIA requirements and double-check.
Furthermore, if you already hold certain other accounting credentials like the CPA, you can take a faster path to become a CIA through the Challenge Exam, which is a special opportunity only available to certain qualified candidates. Although the exam is difficult, it’s easier to study with dedicated review courses like the Gleim CIA Challenge Exam Review System or the HOCK CIA Challenge Exam Material. So when you’re choosing your review course, keep in mind that some companies like Gleim and HOCK have courses for the “regular” CIA exam as well as the Challenge Exam. For example, don’t sign up for the HOCK CIA Challenge Exam materials if you don’t meet the requirements for this particular exam.
Review all your CIA study material options with this helpful guide.
Certified Information Systems Auditor – CISA
The CISA certification from the ISACA is geared toward those who work in information systems audits, assurance, and security. And since technology security impacts business in so many ways, a variety of professionals like IT auditors, managers, consultants, and even non-IT auditors are going after their CISA certificate. CISA is an internally-recognized certification. So it doesn’t matter where you apply—tech recruiters are always looking for people with the CISA qualification. In fact, some security positions require it. Therefore, with the CISA in hand, you could see a bigger paycheck.
The CISA requirements are unique. Unlike many other credentials, candidates must not meet specific education requirements to become CISA certified. Candidates must pass the CISA exam, although anyone can take it regardless of their educational background. However, you must have 5 years of experience in either information systems auditing, control, or security. And if you have an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree from a university or have other certifications like the CIMA, you may be able to substitute 1 to 2 years of experience.
- Examination: Candidates must pass a one-part, 4-hour exam with 150 questions. The CISA exam pass rate is about 50%. However, the CISA exam fees are lower than some other certifications.
- Education: The CISA certification does not have a minimum education requirement. (But if you have a qualifying college degree, you might only need 4 years of experience instead of 5.)
- Experience: You will need 5 years of experience in information systems audits, controls, or security if you don’t have a college degree. However, you can receive a waiver for 1 year of experience if you’ve taught at the college level in a related field or earned a college degree in information security/technology. Furthermore, you may be able to substitute up to 2 years of experience if you have a CIMA certificate or are a member of the ACCA.
The pass rate for the CISA exam is only about 50%. But test-takers who study with the right materials tend to perform much higher than the average CISA candidate. Some of the best CISA review courses include Surgent CISA Review and CISA SuperReview. They both have plenty of practice questions and exam simulations to get you ready for exam day.
Accounting Certifications Comparison Chart
|Focus & Recognition|
|Focus||Public & general accounting||Finance & investment||Management accounting||Internal audit||Taxation||Information systems security|
|Exam availability||Continuous CPA testing windows||Limited annual CFA testing windows||4 CMA testing windows (6 months)||Year-round CIA testing windows||May 1- Feb 28 EA testing window (10 months)||Continuous CISA testing dates|
|Total testing hours||16||18||8||6.5||12||4|
|Number of parts/levels||4||3||2||3||3||1|
|Latest pass rates||48-51%||43% / 46% / 54%||40% / 50%||40%||71%||50%|
|Estimated expenses (U.S.)||$1,000-3,000||$3,000-4,500||$1,300-2,500||$1,000-2,000||$1,500||$1,570-1,620|
As you can see, there are some similarities but also some significant differences in the certifications. This chart is a really helpful, handy way to see what is being offered and how they stack up beside one another. In short, all are valid certifications that could boost your career. The real question is: which one is right for you?
The best way to determine this is to take some time to plot your career path. If you know you’re going to go down a specific niche path, then you want to choose the certification that best matches that path. This will put you in the best position for success and job security. If you plan not to specialize, or if you don’t know yet what specialty you want, the CPA is a safe bet.
Other Niche Accounting Designations
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the available accounting certifications. There are even more niche-specific certifications for you to consider. These include, but are not limited to:
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
- Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP)
- Financial Risk Manager (FRM)
- Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
- Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
- Certified Bank Auditor (CBA)
- Certified Forensic Accountant (CFA)
- Accredited Business Accountant (ABA)
- Certified Payroll Professional (CPP)
Frequently Asked Questions about Accounting Certifications
So, now you know the basics of the most common certifications. There is a lot to take in when it comes to these certifications, and each requires a big time and money investment to obtain. Let’s take a look at some more commonly asked questions. If you have additional questions that you don’t see covered here yet, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Which Accounting Certification is the Hardest?
Sometimes people ask which one is the hardest so that they can avoid it. While some certifications have a reputation for having more challenging exams, you shouldn’t choose based on this alone. Instead, you need to decide which is best for you, then gain access to the tools that will make it easier for you to pass.
Some certifications do have a reputation for being more difficult than others. The CPA and the CFA are usually considered the most demanding. That said, what’s hard for you may not be that hard for someone else. It’s all too subjective. For example, if you already have an advanced degree in accounting, getting your masters degree vs CPA license might not be as difficult.
Which Accounting Certificate is the Easiest?
See the answer above for the truth about choosing which the easiest or the hardest is. That said, an easier accounting exam for you might be one in a field you are already experienced in. Some people think the CPA is more straightforward, although it’s more comprehensive because its scope is broader. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t choose your certification based on how hard you think the exam will be. You should always choose based on what will help your career the most.
Do I Need More than one Accounting Certification?
Many candidates wonder if they should get two different accounting certifications. It depends on your career path and what specialization you seek. For most accounting professionals, one certification will do. However, there are some situations where it might benefit you to get a broader license, like the CPA, and then also get into a niche field. If you specialize in finance, for example, then you could choose the CFA. Having both designations is not required, but earning both could help advance your career.
We don’t recommend pursuing two entirely different certifications unless you’re switching from one to the other. For instance, CMA and EA have almost nothing in common, and there’s no real job benefit to earning these 2 together. Conversely, employers are often impressed if you have two complementary certifications, like the CMA and CPA, or the CIA and CPA.
Best Accounting Certifications Conclusions
There are many accounting certificates you can get as an accounting and finance professional. They all work to determine your level of expertise in the field. The ones we have covered in this post are the most well-known and popular because they are the leaders in their fields.
Now that you have an overview of some of the main accounting certifications available, you will be able to choose which certification or combination of certifications will suit you the best in your career endeavors. Some important things to consider along the way are:
- What is your chosen career path?
- Do you plan on working in the Big 4?
- What specialties are you interested in?
Once you decide which accounting certification you’re going for, the next step is to plan your study process. You need a high-quality, proven-successful review course for the program you plan to take. Prep well and increase your chances of passing on the first try.