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The CPA application process doesn’t have to be intimidating. With proper planning and an understanding about the steps involved, you can sit for the CPA Exam sooner. Becoming a Certified Public Accountant is already difficult and expensive as is, so to avoid further costs and time loss, check off each one of these steps!
What follows is a detailed overview of the Uniform CPA examination application process, and what to do after your application is approved.
Please note that each state has a slightly different process, but using the roadmap below, you should be moving on toward studying for your exam within 4-6 weeks.
Luckily, nearly all the CPA Exam jurisdictions now have online CPA applications so that you can skip printing paperwork.
Now, let’s go through the CPA process and get you on your way to becoming a CPA!
The CPA Exam application process is not hard, but you do have to understand the players. The Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, or CPA Exam for short, is jointly administered by several partners who each play a distinct role in the CPA registration process.
You may already know that the United States has 55 Boards of Accountancy, one in each state and territory. The boards carry out the accounting laws and regulations established in each state or territory. Additionally, they set the specific requirements to get your CPA license in that jurisdiction.
The Boards of Accountancy are the actual bodies who issue the CPA license. We often refer to them as “state boards.”
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, or AICPA, is the largest membership organization for professional CPAs. The AICPA determines the content that the CPA Exam will cover, writes the questions, and develops the scoring methods.
NASBA, or the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, serves the 55 jurisdictions. The organization works to establish common accounting practices and helps to process a candidate’s CPA application form. Additionally, while NASBA does not score the exam, it receives scores from many state boards and publishes and analyzes them.
You will take your CPA Exam at a Prometric testing center. Prometric has an international network of sites that administer professional exams for a range of fields, including accounting. Prometric has locations all over the United States and in over 160 countries. Therefore, it’s likely that a site is near you—visit Prometric CPA to find out.
Each Board of Accountancy has slightly different CPA exam requirements. So, you need to pick the jurisdiction where you will apply for CPA Exam sections based on a few different factors that I’ll review.
However, you need to know:
Many candidates do not meet the minimum requirements when they apply and lose money as a result. Therefore, you’ll need to ensure you very carefully review the CPA requirements of the state in which you’d like to sit.
Typically, once you determine you’re qualified to sit for the exam, you’ll fall in one of two scenarios:
You know where you want to register for CPA licensure because (1) you have been living or working there or (2) you plan to live or work there in the near future.
You don’t know which state or jurisdiction to apply. In this case, you’ll want to discover the popular states for international candidates, non-accounting majors, and mature students.
Note: this step is only applicable to international candidates.
You are considered an international candidate if you have taken at least one course at a non-U.S. university. Therefore, your status as an international candidate depends on where you took your courses instead of your nationality.
For example, if you are a German national studying in the U.S., you are considered a “U.S./domestic” candidate. But if you are a U.S. citizen who spent a semester in Singapore, the credits gained from this exchange program need to be evaluated by the evaluation agency.
Once you have chosen a state or jurisdiction, check out the list of approved credential evaluation agencies. The boards of accountancy require a third-party agency to “translate” your transcript into something equivalent to the US system.
Service (e.g., online status updates provided, inquiry turnaround time)
If it is difficult for you to obtain the original transcript required for the evaluation, you may want to pick an agency that is willing to accept a photocopy and verify the authenticity on your behalf. This service costs considerably more, but it can save you a lot of time and hassle.
Find out which evaluation agencies provide this extra service; I’ve listed several agencies in my full-length article that discusses Foreign Credential Evaluations for CPA.
You should also note that the NASBA Advisory Evaluation Service (NIES) gives academic evaluation services for students who received their education outside of the United States. Before you sit for the exam, a NASBA CPA evaluation may be necessary to ensure that your coursework meets the standards.
Before you are ready to sit for a section of the CPA Exam, you must first submit an application, some required documents, and pay application fees.
Depending on your jurisdiction, you will either apply for the CPA Exam with your Board of Accountancy (or its designated agent) or NASBA. Basically, the application confirms that you are eligible to sit for the exam. NASBA will review your application and notify you of the results.
In some states and territories, CPA candidates must start the CPA application process by applying for the CPA Exam with their Board of Accountancy. If you live in the following regions, contact your board for an application:
Fill in the CPA Exam application form online or send a hard copy of the form to the state board. Remember to contact your school and request a transcript to be directly sent to the state board.
If you plan to apply for a CPA license in these jurisdictions, you will apply for the CPA Exam directly through NASBA via the CPA Examination Online Application System (aka CPA Central):
Also, you’ll need to contact your undergraduate and graduate school(s) and request to have your transcripts directly sent to your state board.
If you are quite sure that the evaluation process in step 2 went smoothly, you can send the CPA exam application to the state board first. The agency will directly send the evaluation report to the state board.
If you aren’t sure, wait until you receive the evaluation report. If the result is not favorable, you can take care of the missing credits before your application.
Be patient while you’re waiting for the results of your application. Depending on your state and the time of the year, state boards can take 1 to 12 weeks to process your application and return your results. Big states like California and Illinois take the longest time.
Once your application is approved, you will receive an email notification from NASBA stating that your NTS is ready. Simply put, an NTS is a “Notice to Schedule,” which means that your Board of Accountancy has notified NASBA that you are eligible to take that section of the CPA Exam.
After receiving the email from NASBA, you can go to the NASBA CPA Candidate website and find, view, and print your NTS. You must print your NTS. And you’ll need to bring it with you to the testing site on your test day.
One of the most essential steps to apply for the CPA exam sections is studying!
Now’s a good time to check out the CPA review courses and pick one that suits your background, learning style, and budget.
Once you pick a review provider, you should also research the CPA Exam Blueprints. The AICPA publishes this document once or twice a year to outline the minimum level of content knowledge that is required to become a CPA. Therefore, this material is likely to be covered by the CPA Exam. However, don’t spend too much time researching the Blueprints (just get aquatinted with them) because an excellent CPA review course will cover the Blueprints in full.
It’s also important to research the layout of the exam and the type of software used. You’ll want to enroll in a CPA review course that has sample CPA tests because you need to understand how the exam functions. You also need to have a handle on the different tools and resources to which you’ll have access.
Plus, the AICPA has sample tests, MCQs, simulations, and written communications for each section on its website. But please note that the AICPA’s resources are incredibly limited — you’ll need a full review course to pass the actual exam.
Once your application is approved and you receive your NTS, you need to verify it. Very carefully check that the name and other information on your NTS match with at least two sets of IDs.
You can only have one exception: your middle initial can appear instead of your full given middle name. For example, if your NTS reads Stephanie A. Ng but your ID reads Stephanie Ann Ng (or vice versa), you’ll still be good to go.
You need to bring these IDs to the testing center for verification; at least one form of ID needs a recent photo (like a driver’s license or state-issued ID).
What if the name on your NTS doesn’t match your ID? What happens if you’ve changed your name or if your NTS is just wrong? Don’t worry—you can contact NASBA and request a corrected reprint.
Once you have your NTS in hand, you’re ready to schedule your exam. Your NTS is typically valid for 6 months, although a few jurisdictions give you 9-12 months.
Still, don’t put this off before you get busy studying and forget! You can go to the Prometric website and schedule your exam any time before your NTS expires. If you don’t have internet access, you can directly call the Prometric Candidate Services Center at 800-580-9648.
Technically, you can schedule your exam appointment at the Prometric site up to 5 days before your test date. However, I do not advise that—you’ll feel rushed. Instead, try scheduling your exam at least 30-45 days in advance to secure good dates. This way, you’re more likely to secure the test date, time, and location that’s best for you.
You’ll take your exam at an authorized Prometric test center in the United States or at a designated international location. You don’t necessarily have to take the exam in the jurisdiction where you will apply for a license.
Once you have successfully made an appointment with Prometric, you will receive an email confirmation.
Some CPA candidates need specific accommodations, such as ADA-related accommodations, to take the CPA Exam. If you need accommodations, you should first be approved by your Board of Accountancy. Once approved, your board will send that approval outlining the accommodations you need to NASBA. This information will be reflected on your NTS, and Prometric will be notified.
This is critical: If you have been approved to take the CPA Exam with accommodations, do not try to schedule your Prometric appointment online. Instead, you should directly call Prometric. The appropriate phone numbers for UN and international locations are listed in NASBA’s CPA Candidate Bulletin. (Keep in mind that some international locations are unable to meet specific accommodations requests.)
If you’ve come across old information about taking the CPA Exam, you might notice some references to “testing windows.” Ignore that old information. In the past, you could only take the exam during specific windows in each quarter. However, starting July 1, 2020, the AICPA and NASBA will be switching to “continuous testing,” which means that you take the exam year-round.
However, there are a few exceptions:
If you take a section of the exam but think you failed, you have to wait for your scores to be released before you can re-schedule to take that section.
From time to time, the AICPA announces plans to make significant changes to the content covered by the CPA Exam. If that happens, continuous testing might be briefly paused.
Lastly, South Carolina will not offer continuous testing until 2021.
An excellent study plan keeps track of your progress and makes sure that you don’t fall behind.
I’m not going to lie—the CPA Exam is not easy and covers a lot of important material.
You must study. And the only way to make sure that you cover all of the content before your big exam day is to get a study planner. Without these tools, our human tendencies cause us to focus on what’s comfortable, and that’s usually the material you already know.
CPA study materials include platforms that help you create personalized study plans to make sure you have all of the skills you need to pass the exam.
Before your exam day, triple-check your IDs. They must be valid, and the name on your ID must match the record on your NTS. And remember, one of your IDs must have a recent photo (like a driver’s license or a state-issued ID card).
If you can, you should also check out the testing center before the exam day to estimate the travel time, understand traffic conditions, and locate good parking spots.
And remember—some large metropolitan areas have several Prometric sites. Confirm that you’re going to the test center where you are scheduled to take your exam. If you show up to the wrong location, you will have to leave and travel to the right one.
Remind yourself that you are ready. Confidence is key! Set out the materials to bring to the Prometric site (your IDs and NTS), get a good night’s sleep, and wake up ready for the exam!
This is so important that it calls for caps lock: DO NOT FORGET TO BRING YOUR NTS WITH YOU! 🙂
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!