Are you ready to learn more about accounting certifications? We’ve got a bowl of alphabet soup when it comes to finance and accounting certifications, as our options include the CPA, CFA, CMA, CIA, CAIA, FRM, CFP, etc.
If you’re pursuing or maintaining a career in accounting, you’d benefit from an accounting major and getting an accounting certification. But you need to know: Which one is the best? Does it make sense to get more than one?
I know accounting certifications can be really confusing. So, for this reason, I’ve shared my analysis of these top accountant certifications and finance certifications to help you discover which is right for you.
|Focus & Recognition|
|Focus||Public + general accounting||Finance + investment||Management accounting||Internal audit||Alternative investment|
|Exam availability||Year-round testing windows||About 4 times a year||3 testing windows (6 months)||Year-round||2 times a year|
|Total testing hours||16||18||8||6.5||8|
|Number of parts/levels||4||3||2||3||2|
|Latest pass rates||44% – 61%||37 – 48%||40% / 50%||43% – 56%||66% / 67%|
|Estimated expenses (U.S.)||$3,400+||$2,550 – $4,800||$2,200+||$1,500-$2,000+||$3,000|
The primary question for the process of choosing an accounting certification should be: Which certification is the most useful?
The answer to that question for most accountants is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. Consequently, you will hear the CPA certification referenced the most in accounting circles. Let’s explore why.
The CPA certification is probably the most widely recognized accounting certification because it is the most general. One of the requirements for earning a CPA license is passing the CPA Exam, and the exam content is very broad.
The CPA Exam covers accounting topics such as financial accounting, management accounting, corporate finance, strategic planning, audit, general business, and U.S. taxation. In fact, the CPA Exam covers so much material that it actually consists of 4 different sections and hundreds of questions.
For this reason, the CPA Exam is one of the most challenging accounting certification exams. Surprisingly, this facet of the CPA certification doesn’t detract from its popularity but rather adds to its prestige.
The additional CPA requirements also contribute to the world-renowned reputation of the CPA certification. In the U.S., the states grant CPA licenses, and the state boards of accountancy oversee this process, which involves establishing the CPA licensure requirements. While the specifics of the CPA requirements vary per state board, the general certification guidelines are the 3 Es:
Some state boards also make candidates pass a CPA ethics exam (the fourth “E”).
As you can see, the AICPA asks a lot of CPA candidates. The education requirement, in particular, is the highest among all accounting and finance certifications. Such strict requirements reinforce the perspective that earning the CPA certification is a particularly impressive feat that places CPAs in an elite group. But that’s not the only reason the CPA is so popular and prestigious.
The CPA certification is the most regulated because the CPA is the only qualification that includes the statutory right to sign audit reports and issue audit opinions.
Clearly, the CPA is the accounting certification of choice, but if you need any more reason to respect it, you should know that it is one of the oldest accounting certifications. The CPA’s long history began in 1896, yet thousands of candidates sit for the exam yearly.
Now we know that the CPA is the leading certification in the accounting industry, but how does it compare with the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)? Well, these certifications can’t be directly compared because they differ in what they address and represent. Yet, the CPA and CFA designations are the most esteemed in the industry. So, how do you know which one you need?
First, you need to consider the career path you plan to take. The CPA primarily focuses on accounting, whereas the CFA specializes in finance. So, knowing that each is the leader in their particular field is the easiest way to determine which one is right for you.
The U.S. has 55 accountancy jurisdictions, and these are the organizations that grant the CPA license to accountants. Therefore, earning the U.S. CPA is quite challenging for someone who is not from the United States. On the other hand, the CFA Institute, an international non-profit organization, grants the CFA designation, making it much more accessible to people worldwide. What’s more, the fact that it is a global designation is just one of the numerous CFA benefits.
So, if the CFA is starting to sound more appealing to you, you should learn more about the best CFA prep courses that will aid you on your way to becoming a CFA.
Certified Management Accountant certification is almost like a subset of the CPA certification. The CMA certification focuses completely on management accounting, while the CPA only touches on it. Therefore, the CMA certification adds value with its specializations in cost accounting, financial analysis, and strategic planning.
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) administers the U.S. CMA program. Though this program is based in America, it is globally recognized because the CMA is available in 140 countries.
However, there are also many CMA equivalents around the world. These comparable certifications include the CIMA in the UK, the CMA Canada (part of CPA Canada), and the ICAI (formerly the ICWAI) in India. All of this competition is the reason why the U.S. CMA certification is not as popular among accountants as it would be.
Another reason the CMA certification is not as popular (though not any less useful) is because of its diminutive usefulness for public accountants.
The CMA does not benefit public accountants as much as the CPA does. However, if you hope to work in corporate accounting in the future, particularly in Fortune 500 companies or companies with manufacturing facilities requiring cost and inventory management, then the CMA is what you need.
This particular accounting certification can help you land a high-quality job in these industries. The CMA certification lets you engage in both the business management and finance sides of a company. Additionally, the expertise you gain from this vocational flexibility equips you for positions such as CEO, CFO, COO, and Vice President, Finance, among others.
A factor that has helped the CMA gain traction in America is the relaxed CMA requirements:
The CMA is considered the gold standard in management accounting. If you know this is the career path you want to take, then learn more about how to become a CMA today. And if you’re ready to start the CMA exam, you’ll want to check out the best CMA review courses and discounts. For instance, Becker CMA and Gleim CMA Review are some of the most popular courses on the market.
Both the CMA and the CPA are highly respected in the industry. So, what distinguishes the two? Well, the biggest difference between the CPA and CMA certifications is that the CMA represents expertise in both financial accounting and strategic management. To do so, this certification expands upon basic financial accounting by adding management skills as well.
Furthermore, while exceptions exist, CPAs usually work for public accounting firms, and CMAs work for private companies. So, when choosing your certification, consider the career path you are going to take.
Additionally, the CPA certification process is a bit more intense. For example, the CPA Exam is a longer test that contains 4 sections, while the CMA exam only has 2 parts. However, the CMA exam pass rate currently averages 40-50%, while the CPA Exam pass rate is about 50%.
And though they differ from state to state, the other CPA requirements are equally involved. Furthermore, the CMA requires 30 hours per year of CPE, and the CPA requires 40 hours per year of CPE.
And last but not least, when comparing these two certifications of accounting, you must also heed their costs. The CPA certification includes a greater range of CPA Exam fees than the CMA certification, but the CMA exam fees are comparable, as both start at around $1,000 for the exams.
The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification also supplies you with an accounting specialization. As you can see, the CIA designation is strictly for internal auditors. While internal auditors and compliance professionals have many certification options, the CIA certification is the most relevant. Internal audit is important for all companies, so the CIA will help you find a variety of employment opportunities. However, CIAs most often work for large companies performing audit procedures and helping independent auditors.
If the CIA accounting certification greatly interests you, you can earn the certification by fulfilling the following CIA requirements:
While earning the CIA certification is not as challenging as earning certifications like the CPA, CIA accounting is a distinct niche. If you are not interested in internal auditing, don’t get the CIA certification.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to take your internal auditing skills to the next level, then discover how to become a certified internal auditor today. The CIA review market features several course options, so you can find the best CIA review course for you. You can also save on your exam prep with big CIA review discounts.
Gleim CIA is the most popular CIA review course, but Surgent CIA and Wiley CIAexcel are other options to consider. In contrast, the IIA CIA Learning System has many unique challenges, so candidates must carefully weigh the alternatives before selecting this course. Finally, candidates trying to decide between Gleim CIA and Wiley CIAexcel, IIA CIA Learning System vs. Gleim CIA, and Surgent CIA vs. Gleim CIA may find that Gleim is oftentimes the best option.
Again, you must pass an exam to earn both the CPA and the CIA. And both of these exams address auditing. What’s more, both the CPA and the CIA require a significant amount of money and time to acquire. For instance, you will need to invest anywhere from 7-9 years in the process of becoming a CPA and about 6-8 years in the process of becoming a CIA.
However, while these certifications have their similarities, they also have significant differences. For example, while individual states award the CPA license, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) grants the CIA. Likewise, candidates can visit the IIA’s website to complete the CIA exam registration process.
Another source of distinction is the responsibilities of a CIA and CPA. As a CIA, your focus is on overseeing a company’s internal financial processes. You will work to ensure compliance or to flag any deficiencies. However, you will do so internally as an employee of an organization.
Conversely, CPAs can perform the same auditing functions as CIAs but usually do so while working for major accounting and consulting firms. So, when you’re a CPA, many different types of businesses and organizations can hire you to do their accounting or auditing. You can also provide auditing services for not-for-profit firms.
Another distinction between the CIA and the CPA is that the CIA is an international designation, so you have a few more opportunities to use the CIA around the world. The U.S. CPA is better for jobs in America. However, some international companies do value the CPA license as well. The CIA designation is very popular among internal audit job seekers in the United States, India, the Philippines, and more.
As is the case with the CPA Exam, the CIA exam pass rates are fairly low. So, while the CIA exam has a more narrow focus than the CPA Exam, both exams are challenging. Moreover, since the CIA exam has fewer requirements than the CPA exam, candidates who take the exam may have less accounting knowledge. Therefore, CIA candidates without a bachelor’s in accounting may find the CIA exam difficulty level higher than candidates with a deep understanding of accounting. The CIA exam passing score is 600, and like the CPA Exam, the score is scaled.
Due to the difficulty levels of the CIA and CPA Exam, candidates often need to retake a part or section that they failed. But in contrast to the CPA Exam, candidates who fail the CIA exam need to wait 90 days before they can sit for that same part again. However, CPA candidates only need to wait until they receive their scores to try again. So, for some candidates, the time between failing a CPA Exam section and retaking it may be less than 20 days.
CIA candidates must complete all 3 exam parts within 4 years; however, some candidates may request a CIA exam extension from the IIA. In contrast, CPA Exam candidates have 18 months to pass the remaining 3 sections after passing their first section.
Finally, candidates typically spend around 400-600 hours studying for the CPA Exam. But, most candidates only study about 200 hours for the CIA exam. The number of topics tested on each exam can explain this study time discrepancy because the CIA syllabus covers less content than the CPA Exam Blueprints.
Again, when comparing 2 accounting certifications, you must look at the costs. Factors contributing to your certification expenses include the amount of education you need, where you earn it, exam fees, and study material prices. For both the CPA and the CIA, funding the necessities can cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
As mentioned, your CPA fees will vary from state to state. But, you can generally expect to pay $100-$200 for the application, a little more than $200 per exam section, and about $150 for the license. You should also prepare to spend about $2,000 on CPA Exam prep.
Alternatively, most CIA review courses start at around $400. And if you or your organization are part of the IIA, you can get a discount on the exam fees to the tune of 30%. So, the cost of the CIA exam for a U.S. IIA member includes the $115 application fee, Part 1 ($280), Part 2 ($230), and Part 3 ($230.) Therefore, your CIA certification total is about $1,105.
The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is the most popular title in the investment community. In fact, it is now a must-have for security analysts and asset managers. Honestly, the CFA is an advantage for just about any career in the finance and investment industries.
Most CFAs work for a hedge fund, investment fund, or Wall Street-based corporation, but the CFA can also lead to company management. Because the CFA trains you to think analytically about finance, investing, and business operations, you can use it to become a controller, CFO, or some other type of finance professional.
You can also utilize the CFA globally, as the CFA is the most international accounting and finance designation. The CFA’s popularity has shot up since the CFA Institute (formerly AMIR) reached out to countries around the world in 1988. Today, CFA charter holders are active across the globe, and China has the highest number of CFA applicants.
Though the CFA focuses on finance, the low barrier to entry into the CFA program attracts many candidates with non-finance backgrounds. Earning the designation involves meeting two of these three these CFA requirements:
While the CFA designation allows you to develop well-rounded skills outside the realm of accounting, its scope is narrower than that of the CPA because it only covers finance and investment. You may not want the CFA title if you’re an auditor or tax accountant.
Having said that, the CFA is a great avenue for going deeper into the realm of investment. Determine how to become a CFA today if that’s the realm for you. Learn about the best CFA courses (like the top-rated Kaplan Schweser CFA or AnalystPrep CFA Review) and CFA review discounts.
Both the CFA and the MBA are respectable. Besides the fact that one is a certification (CFA) and the other is a degree (MBA), the key difference between the 2 is the skills that you develop from earning them. Specifically, the CFA focuses on enhancing investment management skills such as investment analysis, portfolio recovery, corporate finance, and asset allocation. On the other hand, the MBA focuses on overall management skills, like marketing, finance, human resources, operations, etc.
What’s more, the CFA is a self-study course, whereas the MBA is usually a full-time classroom-based degree program. But while both can take years to obtain, receiving the CFA can actually take a bit longer. In fact, because the CFA has 3 levels that you can only take at certain times of the year and require at least 300 hours of study time, earning this certification can take some years. And by years, I mean that fewer than 1 in 5 people who begin the program finish it in 5 years. Conversely, finishing the MBA can take just 2-3 years.
And 90-95% of MBA students come away with the degree, while an average of just 50% of candidates pass the CFA exam.
Yet, surprisingly (or not), the CFA is more affordable than an MBA when it comes to costs since it is not an in-class certification. So, the CFA usually costs between $2,550-$4,800. On the flip side, an MBA could cost you as much as $65,000 or more, depending on the school you attend.
The Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) certification is the new kid on the block. The CAIA Association was established in 2002 but has grown rapidly. Due to the proliferation of alternative investment products, there are now 13,000+ CAIA charter holders. The CAIA is another very specialized designation, allowing you to stand out among CFAs in the investment community. If your work involves alternative investment, the CAIA program would be a good choice.
In the past, the content of the CFA and CAIA exams overlaps considerably. But recently, the CAIA exam moved further away from standard portfolio management topics to better distinguish itself. Passing the CAIA exam is one of 3 CAIA requirements, and as with the CFA designation, you must meet 2 of the 3.
Alternative investments are the fastest-growing segment of the investment industry. If you would like to steer your career toward any of these areas, consider the CAIA:
Or if you aspire to work in any of these position, you should seriously consider the CAIA designation:
As you can see, the CAIA provides a host of career possibilities! If you’d like to pursue the exciting potential of the CAIA, begin by getting answers to your CAIA exam FAQs.
The Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) certification is the peak international technical program for investment consultants, financial advisors, analysts, and wealth management professionals. The CIMA is different from other certifications because it focuses on combining theory and practical application.
The CIMA is for anyone who wants to become a
Like all accounting certifications, earning the CIMA will require both time and money. You should expect to study for around 150 hours for the CIMA examination. It has a 50% pass rate for first-time test takers and 35% for re-takers.
The core topics covered in this exam include:
If you are a candidate for the CIMA, it will test you on these topic areas.
The requirements for the CIMA include
While these 2 accounting certifications may look the same and sound the same, they are definitely not the same. Therefore, familiarizing yourself with the differences between the 2 can be very helpful for your decision.
First of all, the U.S.-based Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) oversees the CMA. However, the CMA is gaining international traction and is well-recognized in the Middle East and China. Yet, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) handles the CIMA, which is recognized by even more countries and is especially valued in the UK.
Secondly, the CMA is great for management professionals, especially in financial management fields. And in the process of earning this certification, you’ll develop your expertise in financial planning, decision support, analysis, control, and professional ethics. On the other hand, the CIMA focuses on different aspects of accounting in the business world, so it makes you consider current trends and industry shifts.
And finally, the last notable difference between the CMA and CIMA is cost. When you add up the application, program entrance, and exam registration fees, the CMA costs about $849 for students and $1,325 for professionals. Conversely, the core CIMA exam and registration fees come to £1,822, but study materials and additional expenses can bring that total up to at least £5,302.
But really, the best way to decide between these and any accounting certifications is to understand how each will help you reach your career goals. Neither is better than the other; they are both good and respected certifications. Therefore, you just need to know what you plan to do with them.
The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification is currently the most recognized designation for information systems (IS) audit control, assurance, and security professionals. Due to a series of financial scandals, the Arthur Anderson fallout, and problems within internal control, the CISA certification has become quite popular. In fact, the number of CISAs has doubled in the last decade.
But the CISA has been around for a while now. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) launched the CISA certification in 1976. ISACA itself began in 1969 to benefit information systems audit, assurance, security, risk, privacy, and governance professionals. ISACA membership has quadrupled in the last 10 years, and the association now has more than 140,000 members in 180 countries. The CISA is one of four certifications the ISACA grants, and more than 27,000 IT professionals take the exam, which offers very flexible exam dates, every year.
Becoming a CISA is a good idea for auditors planning to prove their competency in IT auditing and their dedication to the industry. As a very technical and specialized certification, the CISA can help you qualify for exclusive career opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. Of course, one of the biggest draws is the increased salary you can earn as you advance in the industry. Compared to general internal auditors, IT auditors can make $11,000-$21,000 more with each promotion. Such expansive payouts are the result of the high demand for CISAs in the wake of a growing emphasis on internal control.
If you’d like to become a CISA as well, you won’t have to do as much as you would to earn some of these other certifications. There are only 2 requirements for securing the CISA:
IT skills are more important than ever, and with the CISA, you can be invaluable to the information systems industry. Jumpstart your IT auditing career by learning how to become CISA certified today. You can also find CISA discounts to help with your preparation.
Now that you know more about the CIA and the CISA, how do you decide which one is for you? When deciding which certification is better, you do want to consider what you will do with your certification. What career path do you plan to take?
CISA is designed for specialists, whereas the CIA is better for generalists. Understanding your focus before you start will help you plan which certification is for you. The CISA is recognized globally in the audit and control fields as well as information security systems. Both courses have limitations and qualifications, so choosing the best one requires evaluating your needs and future career path.
The CIA is a good option if you want to be an internal auditor but do not have a specific area of specialization. On the other hand, the CISA is the gold standard for IT auditing.
The CIA costs about $1,500 (sometimes more). CISA costs about $1,000. Training and prep might add to those costs, depending on the books and other materials you may choose.
The Enrolled Agent (EA) designation is desirable for tax preparers. An enrolled agent is an expert in tax preparation. “Enrolled” means licensed to practice by the federal government, and “agent” means a person authorized to appear in the place of the taxpayer at the IRS.
Enrolled agents with CPAs and attorneys have unlimited rights to represent taxpayers before the IRS for audits, collections, and appeals.
CPAs generally have a higher long-term earning potential, but EAs have the chance to earn a substantial amount during tax season. And while CPAs and attorneys typically begin their careers at firms before moving into private practice if they so choose, enrolled agents have their own clients and can work at home with flexible hours.
The main reasons to become an enrolled agent include setting yourself apart from regular tax professionals, gaining clients’ trust with a qualification that includes receiving special privileges from the IRS, and differentiating yourself from attorneys and CPAs as a tax expert.
The IRS created the enrolled agent designation in 1884, so it’s actually a few years older than the CPA certification. Because this designation deals directly with the IRS, former IRS employees can become enrolled agents without taking the EA exam, also known as the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE).
If you haven’t worked for the IRS before but seek to secure enrolled agent status, passing the EA exam is the only major enrolled agent requirement you must meet. There are plenty of EA exam dates available year-round, and you can learn the best way to pass the exam with these EA exam tips. Candidates must achieve what the IRS deems to be an EA exam passing score before they can earn the designation.
If you’re committed to a tax career in the U.S. and desire to establish yourself as a tax specialist, find out how to become an enrolled agent now. If you’re already certain you’ll be pursuing the EA exam, learn how to take advantage of EA course discounts and find the best enrolled agent courses.
If you are deciding between the EA and the CPA, you should know a few things. Enrolled agents are tax specialists designated by the IRS. So, If you know you want to do taxes for a living, this designation is most likely the best choice for you. EAs know everything about taxes, such as income tax, gift tax, inheritance tax, retirement, payroll, estate, and even non-profit taxation.
Most people become an EA by passing the EA exam, officially known as the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE). However, former IRS employees can qualify to skip the exam. The EA exam syllabus breaks down the testable content into 3 parts that cover tax law and policies.
Additionally, in contrast to the CPA Exam, the EA exam fees are quite reasonable. The entire exam may cost you about $1,500, including study materials. As another point of difference, the EA exam pass rates are also much higher than most other accounting certification exams.
Consequently, CPAs have a broader range of knowledge besides just tax accounting. They also know about auditing, business law, finance, and more. So, if you want a broader field of specialization, you should earn a CPA license. Another interesting point about the CPA is that it is a license granted at the state level, while the EA is a designation given at the federal level.
Conveniently, both are acclaimed certifications that will lead to a profitable career. So, the real deciding factor is what you want to do for your career.
Overall, we’ve already discussed some major finance and accounting certifications, and that’s just a handful of them. Others include:
So, if you continue to aim your career toward specific abilities and skills, one of these certifications may prove advantageous. However, many accountants earn one of the 7 certifications we discussed at the beginning of this article.
I understand that this is a lot to take in, and you may have more questions. So, I’ve answered some common questions about accounting certifications. If you have more questions not covered here, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Over the years, candidates have asked which is the easiest accounting certification to earn more times than I can count. In truth, the exam difficulty does vary, but I wouldn’t pick an accounting certification based on these criteria. You should instead choose the one that adds the most value to your career.
Try to avoid shortcuts and short-term gains. It’s much better to plan long-term, so you can benefit long-term.
Just because an accounting certification has a reputation for being difficult to achieve does not mean that earning it would be impossible for you. Rather, if you are intelligent and hard-working, you can get any of these certifications!
That being said, we can see that some of these certifications have very stringent prerequisites, so their reputations may be well-founded. Looking at requirements alone, the CPA and the CFA certifications are the most demanding. However, the CPA and CFA exams usually have higher pass rates than the CIA and Part 1 of the CMA exams.
Consequently, our perspective on certification difficulty can alter according to the factors we focus on. For example, when you look at the CFA vs CIA, you’ll find that several factors determine a certification’s difficulty, including your educational background and work experience.
The answer really depends on your career path. How you want to specialize is also an aspect of this decision. Getting the CPA title is a good idea if you can qualify for it because it is so prestigious and versatile. Earning one additional title can then help distinguish you even further.
However, I would advise against certain certification combinations. For example, the CMA and CFA lead to completely different career paths. Therefore, pairing these particular certifications wastes money, time, and effort. This matchup also leaves recruiters confused about what they want to do. If you are going to combine certifications, you should be sure they complement one another.
This is another big question. Basically, I consider an accounting certification and an advanced degree different enough that you can get both, as they serve distinct purposes. But as always, you’ll find the answer to this question by reflecting on your own career goals and developing your understanding of these choices. To get started on the latter, read my thoughts on the CPA vs Master’s, the CFA vs MBA, and the CMA vs MBA.
When choosing your accounting certification, consider each certification based on your career goals and what you plan to do with it. Ask yourself whether or not this certification will help to further those goals. For example, becoming a CMA may not be the best option when working with small clients. Each designation has its purpose or emphasis, and I hope this guide has helped clarify these for you and make it easier for you to choose the best certification for your needs and career goals.
As you might have already gathered from my post, accounting careers can have a lot of overlap with law careers in tax. And since so many of my readers have asked if CPAs should take the LSAT, I have a new post dedicated to that topic!
You can get numerous accounting certifications as an accounting and finance professional. The ones I’ve listed are the leaders in their respective fields. Consequently, you could pursue tier 2 and tier 3 titles instead, but I think the cost of getting these may exceed the benefits.
But, of course, I am always open to new ideas from my readers. You are more than welcome to share your thoughts on accounting certifications in the comments section below.
If you’d like to earn one of these popular accounting certifications, click the buttons below!
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!