My readers are often confused about CPA certificate vs license. I am going to highlight the difference below, but bear in mind that CPA certificates are becoming less relevant because most state boards stopped issuing them.
CPA Certificate vs License: An Overview
Each state has its own laws and rules governing the CPA profession, and each has its own Board of Accountancy that monitors the CPAs that it licenses.
For most states, the term “CPA certificate” and “CPA license” is inter-changeable. However, for “two-tier states” there is a distinction between the two:
- Work experience is often not required.
- No CPA CPE (continuous professional education) hours required.
- Scope of work is limited as certificate holder cannot own a CPA firm (either as sole owner or partner) or sign an audit report.
- Cannot normally hold yourself out as a CPA within the jurisdiction, i.e. cannot call yourself a CPA in the state where you get the CPA certificate.
- Typically require 1-2 years of working experience, supervised and/or verified by a CPA licensee.
- CPE hours required every reporting years (typically 120 hours every 3 years).
- Can use CPA title in business cards and own CPA firm/sign audit report.
Implications to International Candidates
Because certificate is easier to get, one can consider certificate as the “first level”. The license, or permit to practice, is the “second level”. In fact, many international students aim for certificates only because the CPA qualification is used mainly for the enhancement of their credentials.
Please note that due to confusion and some abuses in the system, most states have switched from two-tier to one-tier. The only state that is applicable to international candidates, in my opinion, is Montana, but even then they have restrictions on how you can use the CPA title.
I strongly recommend that candidates regardless of origin to go for the full license. If you have difficulties fulfilling the educational or experience requirements, they are ways to resolve this. Please check out these pages for possible solutions:
For Your Further Reading
- Which are the remaining CPA exam two-tier states?
- What are CPA exam requirements by state?
- CPA exam application process for candidates with non-US background
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