Becoming a Certified Internal Auditor: Answers to All Your CIA Questions

If you have any interest in becoming a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and taking the CIA exam, then you probably have some questions about the certification and how you can earn it. So, keep reading to learn all about the Certified Internal Auditor designation and start the process of becoming a CIA.

What Is a Certified Internal Auditor?

A Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) is an accountant who conducts internal audits. This specific type of auditing professional has received the CIA certification from the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA).

What’s more, the CIA certification is the only globally recognized internal audit certification. Therefore, earning the CIA is the best way for internal auditors to demonstrate that they possess the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary to complete the responsibilities of any audit, anywhere.

Globally, CIAs are seen as credible and trusted internal auditors who are committed to the profession and differentiated from their peers.

What Does a Certified Internal Auditor Do?

Typically, a CIA works in the audit department of government agencies, financial institutions, or corporations. And within these organizations, the role of a CIA is to objectively assess financial records to check for deficiencies in internal controls.

CIAs have more obligations than non-certified internal auditors. For example, rather than focusing solely on financial statements as regular auditors do, CIAs provide a broad range of services to aid management in handling risk and safeguarding the company’s assets.

Therefore, CIAs don’t just audit financial reports for accuracy, but they also help company leadership establish systems for the prevention of loss, fraud, theft, and damaged goods.

CIA Tasks

Both CIAs and CPAs have audit training and can, therefore, perform many of the same duties. However, CIAs stand apart due to their more focused set of skills. From their unique positions within the company, CIAs fulfill tasks such as:

  • Reviewing an organization’s business procedures
  • Evaluating the efficacy of current risk management procedures
  • Protecting against fraud and theft committed against the organization
  • Ensuring compliance with relevant laws
  • Recommending improvements to internal controls and governance processes

So, where can a Certified Internal Auditor work?

With their expertise in internal auditing, CIAs can work in the following industries:

  • Private commercial entities
  • Public commercial entities
  • Public accounting firms
  • Governmental agencies

Why Become a Certified Internal Auditor?

The CIA certification affords internal auditors plenty of career advantages, including:

Higher income

With the CIA, your career won’t just be financially stable: it will also be financially lucrative. According to the IIA, CIAs earn an average of $38,000 or 51% more than non-certified internal auditors.

Furthermore, job sites such as Indeed, Glassdoor, and Payscale confirm that the CIA salary for U.S.-based professionals ranges from $69,000-$84,000. And of course, the more experience you obtain, the more you make.

Additionally, when you hold a high position such as Chief Audit Executive or Internal Audit Director, you can make anywhere from a quarter to half a million dollars annually. So, that expansive amount of earning potential makes everything you spend on the CIA certification more than worth it.

More job opportunities

Fortunately, CIAs encounter a wealth of job options at every stage in their careers. Consequently, when you’re just starting out as an entry-level internal auditor, you can still hold a distinguished title such as:

  • Auditing specialist
  • Compliance auditor
  • Risk assessment specialist
  • Lead internal auditor
  • Financial analyst
  • Internal controls auditor
  • Information systems auditor

Then, after you’ve proven yourself in these areas, you can be promoted to higher lead internal auditor and internal audit supervisor positions such as:

  • Senior internal auditor
  • Audit manager
  • Risk manager
  • Internal audit director

CIA Leadership Roles

Finally, you can rise the ranks to the highest levels of leadership and assume an internal audit executive role such as:

  • Finance Director
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Controller
  • Vice President of Internal Audit
  • Internal Audit Director
  • Chief Audit Executive

Therefore, with plenty of job options leading to the very top of the corporate ladder, CIAs never have to be bored or unsatisfied in their careers.

Greater job security

The Robert Half Salary Guide reveals that the internal auditor is one of the hottest finance and accounting jobs in today’s hiring market. Moreover, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a few years ago that the hiring of internal auditors would increase by 10% until 2026.

Demand is so high because the world is realizing the value of internal audits. CIAs are responsible for providing assurance on risk management, corporate governance, internal control, and operations in all types of business conditions.

And organizations are motivated to improve internal controls and transparency, so they need to hire and hold onto CIAs. Consequently, when you earn the CIA certification, you also earn the right to stay at a job as long as you want.

Increased skills and abilities

To become a CIA, you must meet the IIA requirements. In the process, you will strengthen your understanding of internal audit and increase your competence in internal audit activities.

With greater internal audit knowledge and abilities, you’ll build up your confidence as an internal auditor and become more marketable to future employers.

The CIA certification exemplifies your dedication to the profession and your willingness to invest in your own development. And on top of that, it sets you apart from your non-certified peers.

Therefore, pursuing the CIA is a great way to be the best internal auditor you can be by meeting the highest standards in the industry.

Heightened respect and admiration

The letters “CIA” behind your name represent a sure sign that you’re a qualified auditor capable of doing exceptional work. Therefore, as a CIA, you’ll receive more credibility and respect in your field.

Everyone in internal audit knows what you went through to earn the CIA. They’ll know that you enhanced your expertise with an internal audit in the process. So, they’ll look up to you as an individual who knows how to make the industry better. They’ll also admire you more than other internal auditors.

So clearly, the best way to join an elite group of internal auditors and secure the esteem of your coworkers and superiors alike is to become a CIA.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Certified Internal Auditor?

The IIA has established a series of CIA requirements that internal auditors must meet in order to enter the CIA program, take the CIA exam, and earn the CIA certification. These requirements address the following:

  • Education
  • Character
  • Work experience
  • Identification

You can determine if you qualify for the CIA program by learning more about each of these requirements specifically.

CIA Education Requirement

You must have an associate’s degree or higher to be approved for entry into the CIA program. The IIA also accepts associate’s degree equivalents such as a Foundation Degree, Diploma of Higher Education, and Higher National Diploma.

To verify your educational status, you must send the following documents to the IIA:

  • Copy of your degree or official transcripts (if your name has changed since you earned your degree, you must also include your legal name change document)
  • A letter from your university confirming your degree
  • A letter from an evaluation services agency confirming your degree level

Alternatively, you can become eligible for the CIA program if you possess 7 years of verified experience in internal audit or its equivalent (subject to IIA approval). The IIA makes this concession for candidates who do not possess the minimum education requirements.

CIA Character Reference Requirement

CIA candidates must exhibit high moral and professional character. As proof of your good character, you must submit a Character Reference Form signed by a CIA, CGAP, CCSA, CFSA, CRMA, or your supervisor.

CIA Work Experience Requirement

The IIA bases the work experience requirement on the maximum level of education you’ve achieved. So, the work experience requirements for the CIA program are as follows:

Education Level Years of Work Experience Required
Master’s Degree (or equivalent) 12 months – internal auditing experience or its equivalent
Bachelor’s Degree (or equivalent) 24 months – internal auditing experience or its equivalent
Associate’s Degree, A-Level Certificate (or equivalent) 60 months – internal auditing experience or its equivalent

Candidates may apply to the CIA program and sit for the CIA exam before they’ve satisfied the work experience requirement. However, you can’t become certified until you’ve met all of the program requirements.

CIA Proof of Identification Requirement

You must provide proof of your identity with either a copy of your official passport or your national identity card. These documents must be current; the IIA will not accept an expired I.D.

You must scan and upload the documents to the IIA Document Upload Portal. Take the time to ensure you’re uploading a clear photo.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Certified Internal Auditor?

The IIA specifies that CIA candidates must fulfill the program certification process within 4 years of application approval. If you don’t complete the certification process in this time, you forfeit all fees and will have to re-take any exam parts you did pass.

For each CIA exam part, you may have to dedicate dozens of study hours to pass. If you’re very familiar with the exam content, you can prepare for the minimum number of CIA exam study hours. However, if you need to learn the basics, you should plan to study longer so you’re sure to be ready.

CIA Exam Study Times

Exam Part Minimum # of Study Hours Maximum # of Study Hours
Part 1 30 65
Part 2 30 70
Part 3 50 95

To break this down further:

  • If you study for 15 hours a week, you can be ready for Part 1 in 2-4 weeks, Part 2 in 2-5 weeks, and Part 3 in 3-6 weeks.
  • If you study for 10 hours a week, you can finish your Part 1 preparations in 3-6 weeks, your Part 2 prep in 3-7 weeks, and your Part 3 prep in 5-9 weeks.

Therefore, passing the CIA exam can take anywhere from 3-7 months. If life gets in the way or you fail an exam part, you can still expect to pass the exam in about a year.

The Certified Internal Auditor Timeline

Considering the education and experience requirements also helps you determine your CIA timeline.

Associate’s Degree

In most cases, obtaining an associate’s degree will take you 2 years. If you only have an associate’s degree, you must have 5 years of internal auditing experience in order to receive the CIA. So, by going this route, you could become a CIA in 7 years, provided you take the exam while you’re in school or working.

Bachelor’s Degree

If you decide to obtain a bachelor’s degree, you can do so in about 4 years, and you’ll only need 2 years of professional experience. Therefore, you could earn the CIA in 6 years with this plan.

Master’s Degree

Finally, if you pursue a master’s degree, doing so could take 2-3 years. If you add that time to the 4 years needed for your bachelor’s degree, you’d spend 6-7 years completing your education (unless you graduate early). Then, you would only need 1 year of professional experience. In this case, finishing the CIA program would take 7-8 years.

How Do I Become a Certified Internal Auditor?

If you’re interested in the CIA certification, you must follow these steps to become a CIA:

What Is the Certified Internal Auditor Exam?

The CIA exam is an exam all candidates must pass to earn the CIA certification. The CIA exam includes 3 parts that cover various aspects of internal auditing. The IIA creates the exam, and Pearson VUE testing centers administer it.

The CIA exam strictly uses multiple-choice questions (MCQs) to assess candidates’ knowledge of internal auditing. The number of MCQs in each exam part varies, as does the amount of total testing time available.

CIA Exam Format

Exam Part Exam Duration Number of Questions Avg. Time Per Question
Part 1 2.5 hours 125 1.2 minutes
Part 2 2 hours 100 1.2 minutes
Part 3 2 hours 100 1.2 minutes

What Does the CIA Exam Cover?

The CIA exam ensures that candidates have a comprehensive understanding of internal auditing by addressing 3 different components of internal auditing and related topics. The latest version of the CIA exam parts focuses on the following content areas:

How Long Do You Have to Take and Pass the CIA Exam?

The total amount of testing time varies for each exam part. So, you’ll have 2.5 hours to finish Part 1, and 2 hours each to complete Part 2 and Part 3.

Once the IIA approves your application into the CIA program, you’ll have 4 years to meet all the certification requirements. This time frame includes passing the CIA exam.

If you don’t pass all 3 parts of the exam within this time, you’ll forfeit your fees and have to re-take any exam parts you did pass.

Thankfully, you can take the CIA exam whenever your local Pearson VUE testing center is open. The CIA exam does not have any testing windows or blackout dates that limit availability.

How Hard Is the CIA Exam?

The CIA exam is passable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A few distinct factors tell us more about the difficulty of the exam.

CIA Exam Pass Rates

First, we get a clue about the CIA exam difficulty from the CIA exam pass rates. The IIA only publishes the global overall CIA exam pass rate once a year. However, we know that the most recent CIA exam pass rate was 42%. Therefore, the CIA exam pass rates are lower than the CPA Exam pass rates, the CFA exam pass rates, and the CMA exam pass rates.

This surprising fact proves that the CIA exam isn’t a walk in the park. Instead, it’s a challenging test for which you must thoroughly prepare. Considering just the pass rates alone, we can see that you can’t take the CIA exam lightly.

CIA Exam Cognitive Levels

Second, we can judge difficulty by looking at the depth of knowledge candidates are expected to demonstrate on the exam. The CIA exam syllabus expresses how much candidates must know about a certain topic by assigning cognitive levels to the main content areas of each exam part.

Each of the 3 CIA exam part syllabi features 2 cognitive levels:

  • Basic Level: Candidates retrieve relevant knowledge from memory and/or demonstrate basic comprehension of concepts or processes.
  • Proficient Level: Candidates apply concepts, processes, or procedures; analyze, evaluate, and make judgments based on criteria; and/or put elements or material together to formulate conclusions and recommendations.

The recurrence of the basic and proficient cognitive levels in the CIA exam parts varies.

CIA Exam Difficulty Levels

Exam Part # of Basic Level Topics # of Proficient Level Topics
Part 1 14 16
Part 2 14 21
Part 3 32 3
Total 60 40

As the CIA exam features almost as many proficient-level topics as basic-level topics, you must know a good deal of the content at a deep level. Therefore, you must spend adequate time preparing to ensure your understanding extends far enough.

With low pass rates and high expectations for candidate knowledge, the CIA exam is clearly quite challenging. However, it is still passable. Remember, preparation is the key to success.

What About the CIA Challenge Exam?

If you have another designation, such as ACCA or the CPA, you may be eligible to sit for the CIA Challenge Exam. While this exam is technically shorter in that it’s just one exam, it’s actually tougher, with pass rates hovering around 39-42%. Discover more about the CIA Challenge Exam and the #1 course specifically made for this exam.

What Is a Passing Score on the CIA Exam?

The CIA exam score ranges from 250-700. You must score 600 to pass the CIA exam.

The CIA exam is fully computerized. Therefore, the computer can grade the exam and give you your results right away.

Furthermore, all CIA exam scores are scaled scores. Consequently, 600 does not represent the number of questions you answered correctly.

You can more realistically ensure a passing score when you use a CIA course with a high pass rate, such as Gleim CIA.

Determining CIA Exam Scores

Instead, the IIA calculates a passing score based on the difficulty of the exam version. So, the number of correct questions required to pass the exam can differ from one exam version to the next.

For example, on an exam of medium difficulty, a candidate may need to get 75% of the questions right to pass. However, on an exam with a more difficult set of questions, a candidate may only need to answer 70% of the questions correctly.

Once the computer has established your raw score of questions correctly, it transforms this score into the scaled score.

CIA Exam Pre-Test Questions

The IIA weights all questions that count toward your score the same. However, not all questions count toward your score because the exam includes pre-test questions.

The IIA puts these questions into the exam to determine if these questions sufficiently assess a candidate’s knowledge of a given topic. If so, the IIA may use these questions in future exam iterations.

But you won’t be able to discern between a pre-test question and an operational question. For this reason, you need to do your best on every CIA exam question.

When Will I Receive My CIA Exam Score?

As mentioned, the computer grades the CIA exam. And the exam only features MCQs. Therefore, you’ll receive an unofficial pass/fail score on the computer as soon as you finish an exam part.

If you pass, you’ll simply see the word “Pass” on the screen. If you fail, you’ll receive a numeric score between 250 and 600.

Within 24-72 hours after you finish the exam, you can also check the Certification Candidate Management System (CCMS) on the IIA website to get your official exam results.

If you fail, you’ll also receive an indication of your performance on each major topic. This information will help you understand how you must improve for next time.

What Happens After I Pass the CIA Exam?

You don’t need to finish the education requirement before you sit for the exam. However, most candidates do. You also don’t need to complete the experience requirement prior to passing the exam.

So, once you’ve taken the exam, you’ll probably need to continue the process of fulfilling the experience requirement (and maybe the education requirement).


If you’ve already met all the other CIA requirements, you’ll quickly receive the certification. And once you do, you’ll need to focus on fulfilling the Continuing Professional Education or CPE requirements.

The IIA requires practicing CIAs to earn 40 hours of CPE per year.

Don’t slack off with your CPE. The longer you keep your CIA certification up to date, the longer you’ll experience the benefits of the CIA!

How Does the CIA Compare to the CMA?

Fortunately, as an accountant or auditor, you have numerous opportunities for professional advancement. The CIA is one option, but you can also choose to pursue the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification.

Many readers ask me about the CMA and how it compares to the CIA (as well as the CMA vs. CPA). So, let me start by saying that both certifications are a boon to your career. However, the CIA and the CMA have significant differences between them.

The Focus of the CMA

For starters, the CIA certification is just for internal auditors, whereas the CMA certification is focused solely on management accounting. So, depending on your career goals and interests, you may naturally gravitate toward one certification over the other. Or, you may decide to pursue one certification first and the second later in life.

CMA Careers and Salary

Similar to CIA careers, CMA careers span a variety of industries and positions. However, some common career paths do exist among CMAs. According to data from the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), nearly half of their members work in general accounting (23%) or finance (22%).

Of course, the pay advantages for CMAs are also impressive. Generally, the CMA salary is higher than the salaries of accountants without certification. What’s more, the IMA estimates that CMAs earn 47% more than accountants without the CMA or CPA.

In terms of actual numbers, the IMA further reports that U.S.-based CMAs earn an average base salary of $109,119. Therefore, this number gives CMAs an advantage over CIAs in terms of earnings potential.

CMA Requirements

The path to becoming a CMA looks like this:

CMA Membership

The most evident difference between the CIA and CMA requirements is the membership clause. The IIA doesn’t require you to become a member in order to earn the CIA. However, the IMA does set this condition. And the actual cost of IMA membership varies depending on whether you qualify as a student, educator, or professional.

Beyond the membership requirement, the CIA and CIA obligations look largely similar. Much like the CIA, you’ll have to meet certain education and experience requirements and pass an exam to earn your CMA.

CMA Education Requirement

The CMA education requirement is straightforward. You must have a bachelor’s degree (from an accredited university) or a professional certification. And conveniently, one of the approved certifications includes the IIA CIA certification.

So, we can see that the IIA education requirements are a bit more flexible, as the IIA also accepts an associate’s degree or equivalent for CIA candidacy.

CMA Experience Requirement

The IMA requires CMA candidates to earn 2 years of continuous professional experience. This experience can fall into the field of management accounting and/or financial accounting.

Furthermore, if you’re a teacher, the IMA may allow you to substitute relevant teaching experience for the experience requirement as well.

The CMA experience requirement is on par with the CIA requirement. If you remember, CIA candidates must have 12 to 60 months of experience, depending on their education level.

So, if you have a bachelor’s degree, you would also need 24 months or 2 years of professional experience to earn your CIA.  Of course, this experience would need to be in the field of internal auditing.

CMA Exam

The CMA entrance exam includes 2 parts, whereas the CIA exam includes 3 parts. Additionally, the CMA exam format consists of MCQs and essay questions.

CMA Exam Format

Specifically, each exam comprises 100 MCQs and 2 essay scenarios. To advance to the essay section, you must answer 50% of the MCQs correctly.

Comparatively, the CIA exam format is solely MCQs. So, if the idea of answering essay questions makes you nervous, you may think the CIA exam makes more sense for you.

But as a CMA candidate, you would have access to lots of resources and advice for CMA exam essay prep. Therefore, the essay questions shouldn’t deter you from pursuing a certification that could really be the difference-maker in your career.

CMA Exam Changes

Additionally, in 2020, the IMA implemented CMA exam changes. The changes follow the organization’s comprehensive job analysis.

The updated exam ensures CMAs have the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the industry’s demands.

CMA Exam Dates

The dates of the CMA and CIA exams differ sharply. For instance, the IIA does not limit when you can take the CIA exam. As long as you can find an open spot at a Pearson VUE testing center, you can schedule your exam.

However, the CMA exam schedule is more restrictive. You must make an exam appointment within one of the 3 annual exam windows:

  1. January 1-February 28
  2. May 1-June 30
  3. September 1-October 31

Therefore, preparing for the CMA exam takes a bit more foresight than preparing for the CIA exam.

CMA Exam Difficulty and Study Time

Neither the difficulty of the CIA and CMA exams nor the amount of study time needed to pass each exam differs greatly.

According to the IIA, the global pass rate for the CIA exam is 42%. And the IMA puts the CMA exam pass rate for Part 1 at 40% and Part 2 at 50%. So, the CMA exam difficulty is comparable to that of the CIA exam.

Exam Study Time

The amount of study time involved with each exam is also similar. As I mentioned, the recommended number of study hours for the CIA exam ranges from 30-95 hours, depending on the exam part and your level of knowledge.

Moreover, the recommended number of study hours for the CMA exam is 60-170 hours. Again, this range is based on your proficiency going into each exam part.

So, studying for the CMA exam can take more of your time. But you must remember that the CIA exam includes 3 parts while the CMA exam has just 2 parts.

Therefore, you shouldn’t allow the number of study hours required to pass the exam to sway your decision of which certification to pursue.

How Can You Get Help Becoming a Certified Internal Auditor?

Your career will benefit immensely from both the CIA and CMA certifications. So, how do you choose?

Well, you should allow your career goals and interests to determine which certification you should pursue. Ultimately, you may decide to earn both certifications and give yourself even more earning and advancement opportunities.

But no matter whether you decide to be a Certified Internal Auditor or a Certified Management Accountant, you will need a review course to pass your exams.

So, learn about the most popular CIA review courses and CMA review courses so you can find the best course for you. Then, use the CIA review discounts and CMA review discounts to save on your preferred exam prep.

About the Author Stephanie Ng

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!

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