This article is dedicated to readers exploring how to become a CPA in the United States. Click the respective links if you are an international CPA candidate, or have recently failed to pass the CPA Exam.
First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on making a choice to pursue a CPA professional credential. Accountancy is one of the most secure, stable jobs in any economic cycles – an important consideration if you have (or about to start) a family.
Before we begin, I’d just like to introduce myself. My name is Stephanie, and I passed the CPA exam back in November 2002. I started this website as an easy-to-use (and free) resource to make the exam process less of a headache for you and to hopefully be there to answer any questions you may during your journey.
With two young kids, I am no longer a practicing CPA, but helping people pass the CPA exam has become my passion.
How to Become a CPA in a Nutshell
If you prefer to read the text, here is a detailed discussion on how to become a CPA.
CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, is a recognition granted by the State Board of Accountancy in the US to individuals who have attained a certain level of competency in these areas:
- Accounting Knowledge
- Ethical Standard
- Training and Experience
- Commitment To The Accounting Industry
Therefore, anyone who wants a CPA title will need to pass these 5 tests. The specific steps are:
- Fulfill the education prerequisite
- Sit for the Uniform CPA Exam
- Pass the Ethics Exam
- Gain relevant work experience
- Satisfy the CPE requirements
The requirements on how to become a CPA are determined by the Board of Accountancy in each of the 50 states and 5 jurisdictions.
Each board issues rules that are slightly different, and you can refer to our CPA Exam Requirements by state for details. Here is a summary for your reference:
(i) Minimum Degree
Most states and jurisdiction requires at least a 4-year Bachelor degree. Many but not all states require 150 semester credit hours — equivalent to a Master’s Degree – as a prerequisite for the exam.
(ii) Accounting and Business Courses
All states require a varying degree of accounting and business courses. The “easiest” one is New Hampshire where 12 semester courses of accounting classes are fine (until mid-2014); while a few states strictly require an accounting concentration. Most states ask for specific classes in business laws, auditing and/or ethics.
(iii) Other Requirements
A few states only allow US citizens or local residents to sit for their exams. There may also be minimum age requirement (typically 18-21) for certain states.
If you fulfill the education prerequisite, you are eligible to sit for the CPA exam. The exam itself is the same nationwide (In fact, the exam is officially called the “Uniform CPA Examination”) .
This computer-based examination is administered by AICPA, the accounting professional organization in the US. The exam covers intermediate/advanced accounting and related fields, including business, law, and taxation. It consists of 4 parts, and you can take them one at a time and in any sequence:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD) – 4 hours
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) – 3 hours
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) – 4 hours
- Regulation (REG) - 3 hours
The Uniform CPA Exam is considered one of the toughest professional examinations, with passing rate hovers around 50% every year. Most CPA candidates opt for study guides and/or courses to maximize their chance of success. You can learn about my CPA review course recommendations here.
After passing the Uniform CPA exam, most (but not all) state boards will as you to take an Ethics exam. This is a self-study open book examination and is considered much easier than the Uniform CPA exam. You can learn more about the CPA Ethics Exam here.
Most states require you to have 1 – 2 years of working experience to obtain the CPA certificate or license. Since you will have no problem getting an accounting related job after passing the CPA Exam, this should be an easy step for you to achieve your full practicing license.
However, if you do not plan to work in a public accounting firm, please beware:
- Some states only recognize public accounting experience
- For most states, your working experience has to be supervised and/or verified by a practicing CPA (i.e. a CPA license holder and not certificate holder) so make sure that your boss has the relevant qualification
Once you are minted as CPA, you are required to take certain Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours to maintain your license. Different states have various rules. You can learn more about CPE requirements here
FAQ: Which State should I apply for the CPA exam/license to become a CPA?
If you are an accounting student and plan to practice in your state, you should go for your current state, unless certain prerequisite such as US citizenship makes you ineligible.
Otherwise, if you fall into any of the following categories, go to my post on CPA Exam requirements for recommendation:
- You hold a non-accounting degree and you have very few business/accounting courses.
- You only have 120 semester credits (a typical Bachelor Degree).
- You are NOT a US citizen/resident.
- You just want to get a CPA license and do not plan to actually work in the accounting field (which means you cannot fulfill Step 4: gaining relevant experience).
If you don’t fall into any of these categories and would like some guidance, feel free to describe your situation in the comment section below and I will try my best to help you.
What to Study and How to Study for the CPA Exam
You should take a look at the CPA Examination Tutorial and Sample Tests found on the Uniform CPA Exam website. The tutorial and questions will tell you important information about what is covered, how to use the various tools, and resources provided in the examination.
In addition, you are always free to use the information on IPassTheCPAExam.com to help you along the way. On the homepage and FAQ you’ll find information about the exam, including summaries, tips and charts to help you organize.
I have published recommendations on the CPA exam review course based on the experience of myself and my peers. This is the most popular article in my site and worth taking a look.
Last Note from Stephanie
I hope this article has at least pointed you in the right direction. You now have an idea of how to become a CPA as the best proof of your knowledge in the accounting field.
Thanks for taking the time to read to the end. I wish you the best of luck on your CPA journey!
May I Help You Plan, Study And Pass The CPA Exam?
I know the process sounds awfully complicated, but once you take the first step in your CPA journey, it’s completely doable. I am more than happy to help you along the way!
If you find this article helpful, please consider signing up to my mini-course which is completely free. I have two versions designed for candidates with different background:
For US candidates (US citizens/residents with US degrees, living or working in the US) who want to learn about how to study for the CPA exam, please click on this US flag.
For other candidates who wants to learn about how to pick the right state and how to apply, please click on the United Nations flag.
Action is the key to success. Join us now and see you there!