Best Accounting Certifications & Professional Licenses: CPA, CMA, EA, CIA, & CFA

Find your accounting career niche by passing these exams and becoming the best accountant you can be!


Graduating from college is only half the battle in the professional business world, especially in accounting.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level we need to talk about professional certificates and licenses.

When you find a niche you enjoy, you will want to become an expert in that field.

One way to do this is by spending a decade working your way up the corporate ladder

OR...

You can skyrocket the speed you advance by becoming certified in your field.

Now depending on what you want to do there are several different options I want to discuss with you today.

Here's a list of the most popular accounting certifications & professional licenses:

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

  • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

  • Enrolled Agent (EA)

  • Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)

  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)

  • Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP)

  • Certified Bank Auditor (CBA)

Top Accounting Certifications Breakdown

The first step to deciding which accounting certifaction to pursue, we need to identify the exam requirements, if work experience is required to take the exam and your total expected cost.

 

CPA

CFA

CMA

EA

CIA

Bachelor Degree Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Work Experience No Yes Yes Yes/No Yes
Exam Offered 4 Windows (2 Months Per Quarter) 1-2 Times Per Year 4 Windows (6 Months) Year Round Year Round
Exam Length 16 Hours 18 Hours 8 Hours 12 Hours 6.5 Hours
Number of Exam Parts 4 3 2 3 3
Exam Fees $1,100 $2,400 - $4,590 $1,000 $1,000 $1,100
Exam Review Course Costs $2,000 $1,600-$3,700 $1200 $600 $949

 

#1: Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Exam

Becoming a CPA is hands down the most prestigious professional certificate you can obtain.

It is universally understood to be THE most difficult exam in business (heck probably the hardest exam ever made).

But please don't let that scare you.

The rewards from passing the CPA exam will pay dividends for you for the rest of your career.

In fact, not only will it help your accounting career whether you are in public, private or governemental, but it will allow you to do nearly anything you want.

CPAs can be found at the FBI, teaching, IT security, practicing law and so many other fields.

If you have the determination (and the time) then becoming a CPA should be your ultimate goal.

 

#2: Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Exam

Looking to shift your career to work for a hedge fund?

Then becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst will greatly benefit your career.

While not nearly as popular as the CPA in the United States, the CFA is very popular in Europe and China.

Becoming a CFA will help train you to be more finance, investing and business focused which means if your goal is to become a CFO in the future a CFA will be incredibly helpful.

The CFA exam is administered by the CFA Institute. You should expect the entire exam process to take significantly longer than the CPA exam because it is only offered on specific dates throughout the year.

It is also significantly more expensive to take the CFA exam as well.

So if investing and finance interest you then the CFA will be a great fit for your career. If you want to focus more on tax preparation or auditng then this probably isn't for you and I would focus more on the CPA, CIA or EA exams.

 

#3: Certified Management Accountant (CMA) Exam

Don't see a future in public accounting for yourself? Then the CMA exam is ideal for you.

The CMA focuses more on company accounting management instead of the tax and auditing procedures tested on the CPA exam.

If your ultimate goal is to become an executive level accounting managager in a Public Company then I highly recommend passing the CMA exam.

CMA stands for Certified Management Accountant and is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). There are two parts to the exam and you are expected to have at least 2 years of accounting related experience prior to becoming certified.

 

#4: Enrolled Agent (EA) Exam

If you work for the IRS or have a goal of representing clients before the IRS then the Enrolled Agent exam is for you.

The EA exam was created by the IRS to help accountants perform tax preparation for clients or internally for companies.

While not as comprehensive as the CPA exam it is absolutely more tax specific then what you will learn on the CPA exam.

However if you work in public accounting the EA exam likely won't be enough and you will probably be expected to pass the CPA exam to advance.

 

#5: Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Exam

If you have transitioned from public accounting into an internal audit role then the CIA exam is a certification you should consider.

Internal auditing plays a major role in any publicly traded company and the procedures performed can be used in a limited sense by the independent auditors.

The CIA exam is one of the shortest of the professional certifications coming in at only 6.5 hours.

If you want to focus on public accounting or non-auditing related positions then you may want to consider NOT taking the CIA exam as it's purpose is specifically for internal audit activities.

 

Common Accounting Certification & Professional License Questions

Which Accounting Certification is Easiest To Obtian?

There is no "easy" certification to obtain. Sad fact of the day...

In terms of length the CIA certification is certainly the shortest exam, but it's very specfic to your job. If you are a tax accountant then it wouldn't make sense to get your CIA creditial.

I would focus more on finding the specific certification that will help your current job role instead of picking up a bunch of "easy" certifications just to have them.

 

Which Accounting Certification is Hardest To Obtain?

In my humble opinion I would argue that there is no harder professional exam than the CPA exam. The CFA absolutely comes in at close second but the CPA exam has tougher education requirements and more parts to the exam.

Either creditial is a monumental achievement and will help you advance your career.

 

Should I Get Two Accounting Certifications?

When pursing two accounting certifications you want to ensure that they compliment themselves.

For example if you ultimate goal is to become CFA of a private company then you need to consider passing the CPA exam and the CMA exam.

On the other hand if your goal is to focus on becoming an internal auditor then have your CPA and your CIA would make you an invaluable asset to your company.

In terms of redundancy it wouldn't make sense to get your CPA and then get your EA license because as a CPA you can represent tax clients to the IRS. The EA exam exists for tax accountants who don't want to take the CPA exam.

Keytakeaway is that getting very specific certifications that compliment your job role will increase your value to the company and also help you achieve the career goals you want even faster.

 

Should I get an Accounting Certification and an MBA or Masters in Accountancy?

Obtaining your masters in business or accountancy can be a great way to improve your resume.

However if you are pursuing your CMA, EA or CIA it's not a requirement.

In fact even if you want to take the CPA exam you can obtain a double major to fulfill your education requirements to sit for the exam (depending on your states education requirements).

Bottom line it can never hurt you to get your MBA or masters in accountancy.

However getting your CPA is infinitely more valueable for your career path and it's not a requirement to sit for the CMA, EA or CIA.

Which Accounting Certification is the Best?

Unfortunately this is an impossible question to answer.

What it boils down to is your goal with becoming certified.

After reviewing your options above I would identify where you want to be in the next five years and determine which certification is going to get you the fastest results.

I would also speak with your managers or HR to determine which certifcation would most help your current position.

Bottom line, if you don't know which accounting certification to take first, I would start with the CPA exam.

It is by far the most reputatible certification and the exam that changed my life.

Here's a list of the top CPA review courses that I recommend you review before signing up for the CPA exam.