CPA Exam for International Students: Meeting CPA Requirements as International Students

cpa application for international students

If you are an international candidate preparing to complete the CPA application or someone who lives outside of the U.S. planning to earn the CPA title, you’ve come to the right place. I was an international student myself who got my CPA while working in Hong Kong. So I’ve been there, done that, and I’d love to share my personal experience with you. Let me walk you through the process of applying for the CPA Exam for international students.

(Domestic U.S. candidates: Learn how to become a CPA in your situation.)

CPA Requirements for International Students

Good news: the CPA application process is the same regardless of where you are from.  To qualify for the CPA license, international CPA candidates need to fulfill the 3 E requirements:

  • Education
  • Examination
  • Experience

The 3 Es stands for:

  • Education: a 4-year bachelors degree from a regionally accredited institution and 150 total credit hours of general coursework with a minimum number of courses in accounting and business
  • Examination: completion of the 4-part Uniform CPA Examination
  • Experience: 1 to 2 years of relevant accounting experience verified by a U.S. CPA or equivalent

Some state boards have one more requirement that also starts with an “E”: the Ethics exam. This additional exam that you must pass is not as demanding as the CPA Exam, but it’s also not as standardized. It could be the AICPA’s Professional Ethics Exam or one administered by the state board.

In the U.S., the states and jurisdictions grant the CPA license, and each has slightly different rules. These variations can cause a lot of confusion, but they also create opportunities for candidates who can’t exactly fulfill the 3 Es.

CPA Exam Application Challenges for CPA International Students

Compared to the 3 E requirements, the application process is fairly straightforward. But for many international candidates, completing the CPA application is still an uphill battle because their profiles do not exactly match that of typical accounting students in the U.S. Consequently, you may face similar challenges. For example, if you were educated outside the U.S., your school may not be regionally accredited, or you may not have a 4-year degree. Furthermore, you may not have a Social Security Number (SSN) or work under a U.S. CPA.

But don’t worry! We will find a way to work around these obstacles.

Applying for the CPA Exam for International Students

To start, please click on the situation most appropriate to your case:

(A) I live in the U.S. and I am…

  1. An international student in accounting / I have a working visa in the US
  2. An H-4 visa holder living in the US
  3. A non-accounting major

(B) I do not currently live in the U.S. and I…

  1. Obtained a master’s degree in accounting/taxation/finance/MBA outside the U.S.
  2. Have a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a 4-year university outside the U.S.
  3. Earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a 2 or 3-year university
  4. Am a Chartered Accountant (CA), an ACCA holder, or equipped with other professional qualifications in another country

A1. International Students / Holders of a Working Visa in the U.S.

More good news! There is little to worry about if you received your education in the U.S.

If you completed 100% of your coursework in the U.S., your application is the same as that of other domestic U.S. applicants. If you did part of your coursework outside the U.S., you simply need to send your non-U.S. transcripts to a credential evaluation agency so the state boards can ensure that your education is comparable to that of a U.S. education.

Accounting Majors

If you are an accounting major studying in a US college, you should have fulfilled all the education requirements, and your school can provide everything you need to apply for the CPA Exam.

The only exceptions are North Carolina and Alabama, which grant the CPA license to U.S. citizens only. In this case, you can simply register in another state.

Relevant, Non-Accounting Majors (e.g., Business, Finance)

If you are a graduate with some coursework in accounting, then you will likely get only 120 credit hours instead of the required 150 hours. There are 2 ways to solve this issue:

  1. Take Courses To Get Those 30 Extra Credit Hours

My recommendation is to take additional courses to make up for what you are lacking. You should check with your preferred state for the details about their education requirements. In most cases, you can easily complete these extra classes through community colleges or online courses. I have several ideas for how to catch up on the accounting courses you need to complete the education requirements.

  1. Get an Inactive License from Guam

Guam issues an inactive license for those with only 120 credit hours and without experience. However, the candidate must be an accounting major. If the inactive license doesn’t bother you and still suits your needs, you can go this route, but it isn’t traditional, and I don’t often recommend it.

A2. H4 Visa Holders with an Accounting Background

Candidates in this category have

  • A bachelor’s of commerce (BCom),
  • A BCom and the Chartered Accountant designation (CA), or
  • A BCom and a master’s of commerce (MCom).

Additionally, they are now in the U.S. with their spouse holding an H4 visa.

General Requirements

If you graduated outside of the U.S., you need to go through a credential evaluation agency to get your transcripts/mark sheets converted into the equivalent of an American educational institution transcript. This process will cost you $150-250 and a bit of effort but is pretty simple otherwise.

Common Obstacles

Besides the extra step of credential evaluation, H4 visa holders may face these challenges:

Lack of Social Security Number

H4 holders generally don’t have an SSN. The lack of an SSN is a problem because all but 7 state boards require CPA candidates to have one. This requirement exists because the CPA is a regulated profession, and the SSN helps authorities track down CPAs who don’t comply with the rules.

However, not all of these state boards hold to this requirement. Some will actually waive it if you ask appropriately. To do so, you must write a letter explaining your situation. You also should fill out an SSN affidavit form.

Not Allowed to Work

Certain H4 visa holders are allowed to work. But if you are not one of them, you can work around this issue in one of 3 ways.

  1. Apply for a restricted license

You can pick a state that does not require working experience. For example, Guam grants inactive licenses, and Massachusetts permits non-reporting licenses. With a restricted license, you will have to make some career compromises. However, you can always apply for the full licenses once your visa status has changed (e.g., you get a green card).

  1. Register in a state with lower work experience supervision standards

You can also find a state (e.g., Illinois) that allows a non-CPA to supervise and verify your experience. With this provision, you will likely able to use your previous work experience in your home country.

  1. Volunteer for CPA-supervised work

Finally, you can meet the experience requirement by volunteering for an organization that allows you to work under a U.S. CPA. However, you will need to be careful with this venture. If you volunteer to not get paid for a job that is otherwise a paid opportunity, you’re breaking the law. Typically, volunteering at a religious or social organization is acceptable. Therefore, many H-4 visa holders fulfill the experience requirement in this way. But, you should probably consult an expert in this area just to be safe.

If you’re an H4 visa holder, you should learn more about the process of taking the CPA Exam and check out the list of state boards with flexible CPA experience requirements before you start your CPA journey.

A3. Non-Accounting Majors with Few Accounting Courses

Qualifying for the CPA certification without many accounting courses on your transcripts is getting harder to do. Pulling it off is still possible, but the process requires a lot of time, energy, and money.

As a non-accounting major, your options for earning the CPA consist of:

  1. Applying to a state that requires the fewest accounting courses
  2. Taking additional accounting courses to satisfy the 150-hour rule
  3. Fulfilling the experience requirements by working in corporate or governmental agencies or universities

To determine which option is best for you, learn more about the path to the CPA for non-accounting majors.

B1. Holder of a Master’s Degree in Relevant Subjects Obtained from Non-U.S. University

As mentioned, the majority of state boards expect CPA candidates to have 150 credit hours of education. Because 150 credit hours is equivalent to 5 years of tertiary education, you most likely have enough credit hours if you have a master’s degree in accounting, taxation, finance, or business administration (i.e., MBA).

Holder of a 2-year Bachelor’s Degree

When you combine a 2-year bachelor’s degree with a 2-year master’s degree, you have 4 years of coursework. That’s a great amount of education, but it’s still not 150 credit hours. However, you may still be able to qualify. To find out for sure, check with your state board or NASBA before you apply.

Extra Steps

When you have a master’s degree, you’re in pretty good shape for earning the CPA. Therefore, the only other thing you must do is send over your transcripts to a foreign credential evaluation agency. These agencies can translate your transcripts into  U.S. transcripts. Working with a foreign credential evaluation agency takes time but shouldn’t be complicated.

B2. Holder of a 4-Year Degree in Accounting Obtained Outside the U.S.

General Note

Like other international CPA candidates, you will need to have a foreign credential evaluation agency evaluate your transcripts. This procedure can last anywhere from a few days to 8 weeks, depending on the agency you go through.

Possible Issue

Once you’ve finished the transcript evaluation process, your educational record will probably only contain 120 credit hours instead of 150. At this point, you must take additional courses to make up for the credit hours you are lacking. You should check with your state board to determine which courses you need. Then, you can usually enroll in courses at a community college or in an online program.

B3. Holder of a 2/3-Year Degree in Accounting Obtained Outside the U.S.

In the past, it was possible to qualify for the CPA Exam with a 3-year degree. But now, that is no longer the case.

Therefore, if you have a 3-year degree and are extremely set on earning the CPA, I suggest you earn a master’s degree to meet the education requirements.

If a master’s degree sounds undesirable to you, you may consider earing the CMA, which has a much simpler application process and less demanding requirements. If you have other professional qualifications, such as the CA or ACCA, please read B4 below.

B4. Holder of Other Accounting Related Professional Qualifications

Something else state boards did in the past: waive the education requirement for candidates with professional qualifications in other countries.

However, things have changed. Now, unless you are a CA from a country with a mutual reciprocal agreement with NASBA and you take the IQEX, your professional qualifications probably won’t help you earn the CPA.

Since about 2012, some state boards have considered these qualifications to be professional rather than educational credentials. Consequently, the state boards no longer count these qualifications toward the education requirements.

Both 3-year degree holders and candidates with other professional qualifications can learn more from the CPA review process that Indian BCom candidates must follow.

More Help Taking the CPA in the USA for International Students

Becoming a CPA as an international candidate may sound complex, but navigating your way through is very possible. You can continue the process by learning more about the CPA education requirements, strategies for satisfying the 150-hour rule, and the best states for international CPA candidates to apply to.

And, if you’ve already investigated your specific scenario and still have a question, you can always contact me. I am more than happy to answer questions, but you may find the answer you need and save us both time with a bit of extra research. Lastly, you can sign up for my international candidate newsletter and enjoy a detailed guide to the CPA certification. I wish you the best on your CPA journey!

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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