CFE vs. CPA: Which Accounting Qualification is Right for You?

Accountants have the opportunity to earn many different types of specialized certifications. If you go into public accounting, you’ll almost certainly look into earning your CPA license. On the other hand, if you spend all or part of your accounting job looking for inconsistencies or weaknesses in accounting systems and preventing or uncovering fraud, you might consider a CFE. Here, we’ll compare CFE vs CPA so you’ll have a better understanding of each certification and whether it’s right for your career.

What is a CFE?

A CFE is a certified fraud examiner – that is, a professional specially trained to prevent, detect, and deter fraud. This includes many types of fraud, so you don’t have to be an accountant to become a CFE. However, accountants and auditors play a major role in uncovering fraud, so many CFEs come from this background. Additionally, criminologists, law professionals, fraud investigators, and loss prevention specialists may also qualify for a CFE.

Just like with many other qualifications, earning a CFE entails passing an exam and meeting a series of other requirements. Also, once you qualify, you will have certain responsibilities to maintain in order to keep your certification. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners is the organization that governs CFEs to ensure they’re properly trained and held to high ethical standards. As you might imagine, this is especially important when dealing with fraud.

CFE vs CPA Roles and Responsibilities

CPAs and CFEs often fulfill very different roles in their workplaces. CFEs usually have a much more specific function than CPAs.

CPA vs CFE in the Workplace

As you probably already know, a CPA is an accounting professional who works with organizations to help them plan and reach their financial goals. Practically speaking, CPAs may act as auditors, business advisors, decision-makers, tax consultants, accounting consultants, and more. Moreover, a CPA may work in public accounting, private business and industry, education, information technology, forensic accounting, tax and financial planning, or the government.

CFEs can come from a wider variety of professional backgrounds than CPAs, but a CFE accountant will probably work in the areas of forensic accounting or fraud auditing. You’ll likely study financial records looking for discrepancies or weaknesses in systems that could be exploited. Additionally, you may work directly with law enforcement to submit evidence or testify in court. Eventually, you may work your way up to an executive position like inspector general or chief risk officer.

Continuing Professional Education (CPE)

Both CFEs and CPAs must continue to learn about developments in their respective fields in order to maintain their licenses. For CPAs, the specifics differ by state or jurisdiction, but the typical requirement is 40 hours of CPE per year, four hours of which should focus on the subject of ethics. On the other hand, CFEs must take 20 hours of CPE per year with a two-hour ethics requirement. Additionally, ten of the 20 hours must relate directly to the deterrence or prevention of fraud.

CFE vs CPA Exam Requirements and Format

Before you can launch into CPE, however, you need to earn the certification in the first place. For both the CPA and CFE qualifications, this involves passing a standardized exam. Here’s how the CPA vs. CFE exams compare.

Qualifying for the Exam

To qualify for the CFE exam, you must first become a member of the ACFE. You need two years of professional experience to earn the full certification, but you may sit for the exam as long as you meet the educational requirement of a four-year bachelor’s degree.

While the CFE exam is administered at a national level, the CPA Exam – and indeed the CPA license – is under the control of the 55 individual state and jurisdictional Boards of Accountancy. Just like with CPE, each state has slightly different requirements to sit for the exam. However, most require 150 credit hours of higher education with a certain number of hours in financial topics. That usually equates to a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting.

Understanding the Exam

To pass the CPA Exam, candidates must pass three “Core” sections and one “Discipline section of their choice.

CPA Exam Core Sections

  • Auditing & Attestation (AUD)
  • Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)

Discipline Sections on the CPA Exam (you must pass one)

  • Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR)
  • Information Systems and Controls (ISC)
  • Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP)

Each section of the exam takes four hours to complete. You can also take them in any order as long as you pass all four within a 30-month period. All sections include multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations.

Similarly, the CFE exam has four sections: financial transactions and fraud schemes, law, investigation, and fraud prevention and deterrence. Once you open a section, all of which contains 125 questions, you have 24 hours to complete it. Additionally, you must finish all four sections within 30 days. The ACFE doesn’t recommend trying to take more than one section in a single sitting, but if you wanted to, you could take them all back to back. All questions are multiple-choice and come from The Fraud Examiners Manual, a massive 2,000-page book.

Preparing for the Exam

The ACFE itself offers two review courses. The first is the self-study, software-based CFE Exam Prep Course. The ACFE offers study plans that take you through the material in 30, 60, or 90 days, depending on how much time you have to prepare. The CFA Exam Review Course, on the other hand, is a four-day, instructor-led course. Although it won’t teach you all you need to know to pass the exam, it is designed as a review of the major concepts. There are also a few third-party review courses and test banks, but none seem as thorough as the one ACFE provides.

On the other hand, there is no single official review course for the CPA Exam. Instead, a number of top review courses are available to help you prepare for this difficult exam. Take a look at our list of the best CPA Exam review courses of 2024 for more details. Although every candidate is different, most people need about 330-440 hours of studying to pass the CPA Exam. Overall, the CFE exam requires much less total study time, at around 60 total hours.

Scheduling the Exam

The CFE exam is one of the most flexible standardized tests out there. You can take the CFE exam on your own computer anywhere, anytime. Your computer will have to meet a few technical requirements, like having a web camera and a microphone. Know that you will be recorded on video and audio as you take the exam. It’s considered closed book and closed-notes, and a database generates each individual test so that no two are exactly the same.

On the other hand, you must take the CPA Exam at a Prometric testing center under strict conditions to prevent cheating. Although the CPA Exam had continuous testing between 2020 and 2023, CPA Exam blackout dates are back in 2024. Furthermore, the Core sections have different blackout dates than the Discipline sections.

Dates for the 2024 CPA Exam: Core sections

  • Q1: January 10-March 26, 2024
  • Q2: April 1-June 25, 2024
  • Q3: July 1-September 25, 2024
  • Q4: October 1-December 26, 2024

Dates for the CPA Exam in 2024: Discipline sections

  • Q1: January 10-February 6, 2024
  • Q2: April 20-May 19, 2024
  • Q3: July 1-31, 2024
  • Q4: October 1-31, 2024

As stated above, you can take the sections in any order you want. You can sit for each of the four sections separately in separate windows. Alternatively, you can group them together and take two in a single day. You can even do what I did and take two sections one day and two the next!

Passing the Exam

To pass the CFE exam, you must answer at least 75% of the questions correctly in each section. You’ll be notified of your score within 3-5 days of completing all four tests. If you fail one or more sections, you can pay an additional fee and request an activation key to take it again. However, you are only allowed three total attempts to pass each section. Unfortunately, the ACFE doesn’t seem to publish pass rates for the exam.

However, the CPA Exam pass rate famously hovers around 50% for first-time test takers. It is a notoriously difficult test to pass and requires a great deal of preparation. Retaking any part of the exam requires paying a new fee and scheduling a new appointment at a testing center. Additionally, it typically takes several weeks to receive your scores, and you can’t re-take a section until you get your scores back.

CFE vs CPA: Other Requirements

Passing the exam isn’t the only requirement to be a CFE or CPA. When comparing CFE vs CPA difficulty, you also want to take into account the professional, academic, and other standards you’ll need to meet. Here’s what else is required of you to earn these certifications.

Academic Requirements

All state and jurisdictional Boards of Accountancy require CPA candidates to have at least 120 hours of higher education – the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree – before sitting for the Exam. However, many states allow candidates to take the exam before reaching the full 150 hours required for the certification itself. Within those hours must be a certain number of accounting, finance, and business courses.

As stated above, you’ll need to have your four-year bachelor’s degree to take the CFE exam. However, CFE eligibility, in general, is awarded based on a points system to allow some flexibility in terms of education vs. professional experience. If you also have a master’s degree or higher in a related field, you can earn more points.

Professional Requirements

Despite this flexibility in the CFE points system, you will still need at least two years of professional experience in a relevant field. You can sit for the exam with less than two years of experience, but you cannot earn the certification until you’ve completed the professional requirement. Alternatively, if you have more experience, you can earn more points toward your eligibility requirements.

Although you don’t need any professional experience to sit for the CPA Exam, you will typically need at least one to two years of full-time accounting experience for the actual certification. Often, this must be verified by a currently-licensed CPA. There is some flexibility in terms of accounting experience versus other kinds of financial work experience, and again, it varies by state.

Time to Certification

By all projections, the CFE is the less time-consuming certification to get. Studying can take 30-90 days, you have a maximum of 30 days during which to take the exam, and you’ll receive your scores in 3-5 business days. After you receive a passing score, you’ll still have to wait for a Certification Committee to approve your application. However, you could theoretically earn your CFE qualification in a matter of 2-3 months if you already have professional experience.

Even with the right work experience and academic degree, the CPA process will almost certainly take longer. Although you must pass all four exam sections within 30 months, most people start studying long before that. The 30-month window begins when you pass your first section, so it doesn’t include the time you put into studying for it.

CFE vs CPA Costs

Costs to Earn a CPA

To become a CPA, your major areas of costs will be the application, the various exam fees, and the fees to become licensed in your state or jurisdiction. Again, since State Boards of Accountancy administer exams and licenses, all of these fees will vary by jurisdiction. When it comes to the CPA Exam itself, most states charge anywhere from about $250 to over $400 per part of the exam plus a varying registration fee. If you need to retake any part of the exam, you’ll pay another $250-$400 plus a fee. Finally, most states require you to take a separate ethics exam and pay an application or licensing fee for the privilege of practicing in the state. We have an entire post dedicated to the CPA Exam fees.

However, most people aren’t able to just sit down and take the test without purchasing any review courses or study aids. These materials can vary widely in price, from a few hundred dollars for bare-bones books to multiple thousands of dollars for in-person instruction and tutoring. These prices can seem staggering, but when compared to the price and time needed for multiple retakes, they may be worth the upfront cost. If becoming a CPA is your goal, it’s important to find the right exam prep course that fits your needs and your budget.

Costs to Earn a CFE

The price of becoming a CFE is even less straightforward than a CPA. Since the ACFE controls everything from membership to exam prep to the exam itself, they offer various packages based on your status and what you need. Associate Members, Educator Members, and Student Members are all eligible for different packages. For example, if you’re a teacher, you can bundle the CFE Exam Prep Course and exam fee for a total of $450. Students can get the same deal plus a one-year ACFE membership for $399. Yearly membership in the ACFE is $175 if you auto-renew or $195 per year if you don’t. Students are eligible for a $ 25-a-year electronic-only membership. Additionally, you can get the Exam Prep Course alone or bundle it with the Fraud Examiners Manual for $1,000.

Comparing CFE vs CPA Costs

Clearly, there are wide variations in the costs for both certifications. If, for example, you’re a student and you don’t need much in the way of an exam prep curriculum, your price for either exam will be cheaper. However, in general, getting the CPA is going to cost more than getting the CFE. Here’s the range of prices you can expect to pay for each.



Application/membership fee $10-$245 $175-$195
Exam fees $250-$400 per section (At least $1,000 for the entire exam)

$30-$150 registration fee

$350-450 $399 for students

$450 for educators

Exam preparation $1,000-$3,000 $970-$1,700 course + books
Fees to re-take (average) $75 + $250 per section (average) $100 per section
Ethics exam fee $189 N/A
Licensing fee $5-$500 N/A
Total with one retake $2,559-$6,009 $674-$2,445

CFE vs CPA Salary and Employment Opportunities

According to, most CPAs in the US earn between $58,500 and $83,000, with a national average of $72,467. For comparison, an accountant without a CPA qualification earns an average of $61,621. That’s a difference of $10,846, or a 17.6% increase for the CPA. Also, according to NASBA, there are 658,267 CPAs working in the US, excluding UT and HI.

Salary is a little harder to compare for CFEs because they come from a variety of professional backgrounds. However, according to the ACFE, CFEs earn 23%-34% more than their colleagues who don’t have the certification. For the average accountant, this would mean a salary of $75,794 to $82,573. However, we haven’t seen the data that the ACFE used to figure out their percentages. According to ZipRecruiter, though, a forensic accountant makes an average of $86,267 a year.

The good news for both CPAs and accountants with CFEs is that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that accounting and auditing careers will continue to grow by 7% between 2022 and 2032.

CFE vs CPA: Value-Add to Clients

For a list of all the perks that come with a CPA career, you can look at our page on the benefits of becoming a CPA. In brief, however, the CPA title shows that you have a level of education and expertise beyond regular accounting. You can provide tax filing services, which will make you especially attractive to small businesses. All managers, no matter the business size, rely on CPAs to protect a company’s finances.

As a CFE, you also make yourself more valuable to any organization that hires you. According to the ACFE, “organizations with CFEs on staff uncover fraud 50 percent sooner and experience fraud losses that are 62 percent smaller than organizations that do not have CFEs on staff.” Again, there’s not much data specifically on accountants with CFEs, but forensic accountants are especially valuable to the financial well-being of any company.

CFE vs CPA: The Choice

Here’s a quick summary of the basics of each certification.

Career paths Auditing, business advising, tax preparation and planning, consulting, financial planning, management, assurance services Fraud investigation, prevention, and deterrence
Membership Your state or jurisdictional Board of Accounting Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
Qualifications 150 credit hours (bachelor’s and master’s degrees)

1-2 years accounting experience

Pass AICPA ethics exam

Bachelor’s degree

2 years of professional experience in fraud investigation

Exam 4 sections in 30 months

80-85 questions each

Approx. 330-440 study hours

4 sections in 30 days

125 MCQs each

Approx. 60 study hours

Costs Approx. $2,500 to $5,300 Approx. $700 to $2,400
Maintenance 40 CPE hours/year

1-3 year renewal period

20 CPE hours/year

Overall, the decision to pursue a CPA or CFE will probably depend on your interests and career goals. If ferreting out fraud is right up your alley, the CFE will undoubtedly help you specialize in this career path. However, if you’d like a less-specialized qualification that nevertheless commands a lot of respect in the financial world, the CPA may be better for you. Forensic accountants, for instance, might even choose to earn both.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is harder to earn: CPA or CFE?

In terms of the exam, the required academic qualifications, time, and cost, the CPA is the harder qualification to achieve. There is simply a higher barrier to entry. However, you may find that it opens more doors for you in the accounting world in general, whereas a CFE leads only to work in detecting and preventing fraud.

What about CMA vs CPA vs CFE?

Certified management accountant, or CMA, is another professional qualification that some accountants decide to pursue. Whereas financial accountants give information about a company’s finances to those outside the company (like the IRS, shareholders, creditors, etc.), management accountants give information about the company’s finances to the company’s managers. Read more about the difference between the two in our article directly comparing CPA vs. CMA.

The process of earning a CMA is somewhat similar to the other two certifications. Here’s what’s required:

  • Membership: Institute of Management Accounting
  • Academic qualifications: a bachelor’s degree in any field (or approved professional certification)
  • Professional qualifications: 2 years of work experience in management accounting or financial management
  • Exam: 2 sections (multiple-choice and essay questions) in 3 years
  • Total costs: $1,500 to $3,100 (membership + exam + review course)
  • Maintenance: 30 CPE hours per year

Regarding CPA vs CMA vs CFE, the CMA lies somewhere between the CFE and the CPA in terms of difficulty and barriers to entry. However, the relative difficulty of the qualification shouldn’t play as high a role in your decision as your career goals. Management accounting and forensic accounting are very different jobs, and you should choose your qualification based on the job you want.

About the Author R Bax

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