Do you have a favorite calculator? I do. I’ve had my calculator since college, and the numbers have faded from use. But when I took the CPA Exam, I left my calculator at home, and you should, too. Can you use a calculator on the CPA Exam? Yes, you can use one. But according to the CPA Exam calculator policy, you must use one that is provided to you at the testing center.
The short answer is “no.”
But, the long answer is “no, but the provided AICPA calculator for CPA Exams will meet all of your calculating needs.”
If you’re reading this article and you’re starting to panic that you won’t have access to a CPA financial calculator for the exam, don’t worry. I promise you won’t have to work out complicated math equations with your fingers.
When you arrive at the Prometric site on the day of your exam, the staff there will remind you that no outside calculators are allowed on CPA Exams. This policy is for security reasons—I mean, in theory, you could write notes on the back of your calculator or program certain formulas into the memory.
So to be fair, outside calculators aren’t allowed. However, if you ask, the staff at the Prometric site should give you a hand-held 10-key calculator upon request.
In theory, every Prometric center should have enough calculators for every test taker who is taking an exam on any given day. If you request one at check-in, the Prometric staff should retrieve one for you. However, some of my readers have warned me that on rare occasions, the Prometric sites run low on CPA Exam calculators.
For that reason, I would arrive early to the Prometric test center to make sure you get a calculator if you want one.
Yes—if you want, you can also use the CPA Exam calculator that is built into the computer at the Prometric site. I know this might not be your favorite option, but they are fine as a basic calculator for CPA Exams.
But remember, these calculators are clunky and can be awkward if you’re not used to them. I recommend that you play around with the calculator on your computer while working through your CPA Exam review course and other study materials.
In case the Prometric site runs out of calculators on your exam day, you’ll want to be able to use your computer’s built-in calculator with ease to keep your stress levels low. (And hopefully, to keep your final score high!)
Yes—you’ll have access to an exam version of Microsoft Excel. Some of the functions are limited, but you can still use Excel to do basic math. In fact, Excel can be a great way to make computations when you don’t have access to a calculator. Since you can type out your equations, you can double-check your work to make sure you didn’t enter any incorrect numbers.
No—and that’s a big no—you definitely cannot use the calculator that is built into your cellphone. In fact, you can’t use any of your phone’s apps on the CPA Exam. You can’t even take your cell phone into the testing room with you.
When you arrive at the Prometric site on the day of your exam, the staff will ask you to put your personal belongings—including your bag, your purse, and/or your cellphone—in a small storage locker. Your phone will stay there for the duration of the exam period.
Since you can’t use your cell phone on exam day, I suggest that you don’t even use it when you’re studying. Instead, practice with a small 10-key calculator. Or, if you’re using a CPA Exam review course, use the calculating tools in their platform if they closely resemble the ones on the real exam.
It’s essential that before you step into the Prometric testing center, you understand how to use all of the calculating tools that you’ll have access to during the CPA Exam. I’m going to make two recommendations.
First, I recommend that you check out AICPA’s website, which includes an explanation of the CPA Exam format. The website includes a short but very informational video about the software used and the functionality of the software’s tools.
Second, I recommend that you study with a CPA Exam review course like Surgent CPA Review, which uses a platform that mimics the real exam. That way, as you study, you can get used to using features like the CPA Exam’s limited version of Excel to do your basic calculations.
In addition to requesting a calculator, you will also have access to a small, handheld whiteboard and markers to take notes and do your calculations. Before you start, though, check your markers. And if they are running low on ink, you should ask the Prometric staff for replacements. Also, I suggest putting the cap back on your marker when you finish using it so that it doesn’t dry out.
Some of my readers have purchased small whiteboards and markers to practice with at home while they are studying. This is a good idea if you are prone to any kind of exam-day anxiety at all. Don’t let something as small as a whiteboard trip you up if you can practice beforehand.
If you like to use scratch paper and pencils to work out problems, you’ll need to plan ahead. You CAN use scrap paper and pencils, but ONLY if you request this in advance. Email NASBA at firstname.lastname@example.org and make the request at least 2 weeks in advance.
You must include your full name as it appears on your NTS, your full National Candidate ID, your confirmation NTS number, the date/time of your exam, the section of the exam that you are taking, and the address of the Prometric site you will use.
On the day of the exam, the Prometric staff will give you paper and a pencil to use during the exam. You must return the items to the staff when you’ve completed the exam. So, you cannot take the paper with you. In fact, the staff will even count the number of sheets you return. Furthermore, Prometric’s team will compare their count against the number of sheets you were given initially. You know, to ensure you aren’t hiding any sheets in your back pocket :).
Note, though, that if you use scratch paper, you can’t use the Prometric whiteboards.
Before you start to laugh at my suggestion that you practice using a hand-held 10-key calculator, hear me out.
Most of us don’t use a small calculator to calculate accounting problems. But that’s what you’ll have access to on the day of the test. So, I suggest you purchase an inexpensive one to use while working through your CPA Exam review course and your practice problems. It takes a little practice to get used to the limited functionality, and you don’t want any surprises or added stress on your CPA Exam day.
The AICPA has not endorsed any specific CPA Exam financial calculator. Instead, I suggest you practice with Excel, with the built-in calculator on your computer, and with a small 10-key calculator you can purchase from many office supply retailers.
While discussing what to bring or not to the CPA Exam, let’s go over some other FAQs.
You should bring your NTS (Notice to Schedule) that includes your “examination” password that you’ll enter into the computer to log in to the exam.
You’ll also need two valid forms of ID. Your identification must be current (so no expired IDs will be accepted) and signed. Plus, at least one form must include an up-to-date photo.
When you get to the Prometric site, you’ll have to place all of your personal belongings, like your bag and cell phone, in a storage locker. The lockers are small, so leave larger items (like a laptop) at home.
It takes about 4 hours to take just one section of the 4-part CPA Exam. If you need to take medication during that time, you can store your meds in the storage lockers at the Prometric site.
Can you use a calculator on the CPA Exam? Yes, but only the calculators on the computers at the testing center or the calculators provided by Prometric.
Applying for your CPA license involves a lot of hard work and perseverance. If you prepare for the small hiccups along the way—like being familiar with the calculator on the CPA Exam—you will make your journey a lot easier.
If you have questions about any other step to becoming a CPA, from your education down to specific CPA state requirements, I’m here to help. Sign up for my free e-course and I’ll give you the advice you’ll need to succeed.
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!