CPA Exam Schedule

cpa exam schedule

Proper planning of your CPA exam schedule and testing dates will make your life much easier, and greatly increase your chance to pass the CPA exam. The CPA exam schedule is a bit confusing for many candidates because there are many different testing windows, exam days, blackout months and more. It can feel like a lot to keep track of. First-time candidates may also find the scheduling process to be really confusing.

This is why it’s recommended you do some research first, in order to prepare I am going to walk you through my recommended CPA exam schedule and explain the reasoning behind it.

How to Schedule the CPA Exam

You will first need to know how to schedule the CPA exam. As I said above, it can be confusing to first-time candidates who are trying to get on the schedule. Allow me to walk you through the process.

First, you need to submit a CPA application to state your intention of wanting to join the CPA program and take the exam. This application needs to be approved by your state’s board of accountancy, and then you will be told that you are eligible to sit for the exam with an Authorization to Test (ATT).

The ATT means you have 90 days to pick which section of the exam you want to sit for. Once you have decided which section(s) you want to sit for, you register for them and pay the fees on the NASBA website.

Receiving Your Notice to Schedule (NTS)

In about 3 to 6 weeks after you’ve paid your registration fees for the section(s) you are going to sit for, you will get a Notice to Schedule (NTS) for these events. The NTS is a document that legally allows you to sit for the exam. It’s very important so be sure not to lose it. You will not be able to schedule your testing date and time at a Prometric testing center without it.

You also need to know that you have only 6 months to schedule your test from the time you are issued the NTS. After 6 months from the issue date, the NTS will be invalidated and you will have to apply for it again to get a new one. This also means paying the exam fees again.

So, that’s the basic process for scheduling your CPA exam. Next, you need to know about the testing windows.

CPA Exam Testing Dates 2020

The CPA Exam is available during 4 annual testing windows:

  • Q1: January 1 – March 10
  • Q2: April 1 – June 10
  • Q3: July 1 – September 10
  • Q4: October 1 – December 10

As you can see from this schedule, there are roughly two months of testing, with about a 20-day break of no testing. You cannot schedule your exams during the break periods. You can, however, schedule your test dates at any time within the testing window. An easy way to look at it is 2 months on, then 1 month off. The break months are March, June, September, and December.

Another important thing to know is that you cannot test the same part more than once in a testing window. For example, you cannot take one part in Q1, fail it, and take it again in Q1. If you do not pass, you have to wait for the next quarter to retest. This is yet another reason to properly study so you can pass on the first try.

CPA Blackout Dates

During these testing windows, there are some blackout dates you need to be aware of. Again, these are dates that Prometric does not allow testing for the CPA exam. This is the 3rd month of each quarter. The testing schedule does allow for some rollover, so that is why you will see the first 10 days of each month of 2020 in the testing window. However, the rest of the month is considered blackout.

It’s important to plan ahead and allow for these blackout dates in your schedule. This requires thinking out at least 12-18 months in advance. That’s because once you complete the first part of the exam, your rolling window begins. What’s the rolling window?

Rolling Window for CPA Exam

You also need to know about the 18-month rolling window for the CPA. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with when you schedule your exam dates. The rolling window refers to the time frame that you have to complete all four sections of the exam. This rolling window starts from the time you complete the first section of the exam. This means when you finish the first part, you’ll have 18 months to complete the other three parts of the CPA exam.

This is important because if you take the first part and pass, but then you cannot take and pass the other three parts within the window, the first one will drop off or be invalidated. This means scheduling, paying the fees, and taking it all over again. This rolling window highlights the importance of planning out your CPA testing schedule from the very beginning. You definitely want to take and pass all four sections as soon as you can.

Therefore, as soon as you sign up for the first testing part, you want to have room in your schedule for doing the other three within 18 months. You don’t want to end up having to retest a part you already passed because you didn’t get it done within the window.

Did You Know…

The passing rate of the CPA exam has been increasing. In 2018, we’ve seen some of the highest section pass rates ever, and the average is now 53%. In the past, people have seen low test passing rates, so this is actually promising news. Pass rates under 50% can be really intimidating as you’re going into a big exam like this.

One of the reasons is that the computerized exam has allowed CPA candidates the flexibility to take the exam almost anytime during the year. The testing windows used to be a lot smaller, making it even more important to pass on the first try.

Then and Now

Prior to 2004, when the CPA Exam was still in the pen-and-paper format, the exam was held on specific dates twice a year. Candidates had no choice but to take multiple sections if they wanted to complete the exam within a year. Since it is a very complex test, this was a lot to take on at one test time. As a result, candidates did not always do well the first time.

With the computerized format, CPA candidates can work around their own schedules and take the CPA Exam sections one at a time within the 18-month window. This added flexibility makes it much easier on candidates. Now, with this in mind, how can you plan your CPA exam schedule to best suit your needs?

CPA Exam Fees and Other Costs

Part of planning your CPA exam schedule is understanding the fees and other costs involved. Because the fees can add up, you want to keep costs down where you can and also do your best to pass on the first try and within the rolling window so you don’t have to pay any fees more than once. It’s essential that candidates know all the costs and fees before they begin the process of applying for and testing for the CPA exam.

The examination fee covers the cost of sitting for each CPA Exam section. The NASBA examination fee schedule that guides the majority of state boards is:

The NASBA totals include these individual CPA test costs:

Fee Type

Fee

AICPA (development and scoring)

$100.00

Prometric (testing)

$82.28

Security Fee/Digital Photograph

$6.12

NASBA (database and reporting)

$20.00

There are also additional fees like application fees, review courses, licensing and more. You can learn even more about CPA exam fees here. This chart below will give you an overview.

Overall CPA Exam Fees

CPA Fee Structure

CPA Price Without a Section Retake

Price With a Section Retake

Application

$150.00

$150.00

Examination Fees

$833.60

$833.60

Review Course

$2,000.00

$2,000.00

Ethics Exam

$189.00

$189.00

License

$250.00

$250.00

Registration Fee + Examination Fee

N/A

$75 + $208.40

Total

$3,402.60

$3,686.00

How to Design Your CPA Exam Schedule

How should you design your CPA exam schedule? Well, it depends on your work and family commitment. The most important part is that you do, in fact, plan out the schedule. Because this is a very important, complex exam and the fees are costly, you want to have a strategy going in.

In general, I recommend taking the 4 parts one at a time, because:

  • You can focus 100% on one part of the exam.
  • You tend to do better after getting some exam-taking experience.
  • The CPA Exam fees are the same anyway (so why pay them all at once and torture yourself?)

An exception is for those who incur a lot of traveling and accommodation costs to get to the exam centers, e.g. international candidates who need to travel by air to the US. Now, let’s look at the strategy for putting this exam schedule together.

The Strategy

1. Plan Ahead and Pick the Dates.

Even out your CPA exam schedule. Avoid possible crashes with important events in your (and your family’s) life, such as getting married, having a baby, or changing careers. During big events, you are far more likely to get distracted and the CPA exam won’t be your priority. It’s important you research how to know when you’re ready to sit for the CPA exam. This gives you the best chance of passing on your first try.

2. Aim to Complete All Sections within 12 Months

For most candidates, this is doable as long as you put in sufficient time and effort. Once you complete one part, you will only have 18 months to pass the rest of the exam or risk retaking the sections you have completed. If you aim to do it in 12 months, that gives you a 6-month buffer time, just in case you run into any trouble with any of the parts.

In other words, as soon as you pass the first part of the exam, the 18-month clock begins to tick. It may sound like plenty of time, but time can easily get away from you, especially if you have a busy life outside of your studies.

To recap: I recommend spreading the 4 CPA exams somewhat evenly within 12 months instead of the full 18 months.

You can:

  • shorten the ordeal
  • build in some buffer in case of retakes or postponements

3. Take the Toughest CPA Sections First

The next question that gets asked a lot is which section of the CPA exam should you take first? Some people may disagree with this CPA Exam schedule strategy, but I prefer getting rid of the toughest beast first, because:

  • Your energy level and ability to focus are the highest at the beginning of the year-long study.
  • It feels so much better to have tackled the toughest part. This is the best motivation you can ever have to get done with the exam.

Along these lines, I recommend taking FAR first because:

  • FAR is the longest, but not necessarily the most difficult if you know accounting.
  • The exam questions are similar to the accounting coursework you have in school so you should take it when memory is still fresh.

Take AUD after FAR

AUD is closely related to FAR. It makes sense to take the two parts closely together.

Having said that, if you just started your work at an audit firm, you may consider taking AUD last. There will be so much you can pick up on the job that you can expect yourself to do much better if you take AUD a few months later.

REG vs BEC? Depends on Your Expertise

I find REG the most difficult myself (maybe I’m really not interested in the topic) so I also wanted to get it out of the way early.

BEC is the shortest and easiest CPA Exam in my opinion, and as far as I know, most CPA candidates agree with me (BEC can be tricky though, but it’s another topic). Since you must be sick of all the studying by then, you will appreciate the decision of saving the easiest one at the end of your CPA Exam journey.

An Alternate Strategy

Now, if that strategy doesn’t work for you, another option is to take your most confident subject first. If you do the section you feel will be the easiest and do it fast, you can give yourself more time to focus on the harder sections and still remain in your 18-month window. This will be different for everyone, so only you can determine which will be the easiest for you and which you feel most confident in.

This is a good strategy for candidates who are fresh out of school. If you’re really good at memorizing info, for example, then this might be the best strategy for you as well. If you’re not fresh out of school but you currently work in an accounting or related field, you can use this work experience to help you determine which part to test in first. The most important thing to remember is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it.

The right way for you is the way that helps you pass most easily. So, look over the advice in this post and see what resonates best with you.

One Last Note

Don’t blindly stick with my suggested CPA Exam schedule. If you are a tax accountant you might find REG the easiest, and FAR the most difficult. It depends on your background, and you should adjust your own CPA Exam schedule accordingly.

As long as you put in your thoughts and plan ahead, you will be able to optimize your time and energy to tackle this efficiently and effectively.

Two Different CPA Exam Schedules from My Bloggers

To give you an example, Travis and Sumit have different views on how they plan the exam sections:

cpa candidate travisVScpa candidate sumit
Travis Status: passed all parts AUD -> REG -> FAR -> BEC (In retrospect he would have taken FAR first)Sumit Status: just started AUD -> BEC -> REG -> FAR (See why he takes FAR last)

For Your Further Reading

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites

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  • Vladimir says:

    Dear Stephanie,
    thank you for your great web site! It’s very helpful. I come from Germany and plan to take the CPA exam this year. I thought of splitting it into 2 parts. I would then have to fly twice in the US. Would you recommend to take FAR and BEC first and AUD and REG later on? Is this a good combination? To my background: I do not know much about the US GAAP but I have a pretty good knowledge of IFRS as I work for a public accounting firm. I would be very greatful for your advice!
    Many thanks!
    Best regards,
    Vladimir

  • durga says:

    my question is similar to the above question but i am from India but from accounting background. however, i am very new to US GAAP and IFRS. In view of the 2011 changes, would it be right to start CPA with FAR and BEC as the first parts to appear for the first time in 2012?

  • emmersene says:

    Hello Stephanie, ;
    I want to be consider / apply for more than one state for the CPA exam. How do I proceed
    with that? Do I apply separately to each state?
    Do I choose the states that I want to set for
    during the scheduling?
    Please explain the process to me.
    Thank you.

    • Stephanie Ng says:

      Hello, why would you want to apply for more than one state in the first place? It will be confusing at the Uniform CPA exam level.

  • Ravi says:

    Dear Stephanie

    Thank you for your advises and suggestions. I need to know if I have completed Enrolled Agent, is there any relief in educational credits ?

  • Chris says:

    Hello, Im from Philippines and I think I still have to take taxation courses for me to get the exam permits. Do you have any idea of any US based college or universities giving online taxation subjects? I am planning to take the exam in Texas. Thank You Very Much .

  • Shamie says:

    Hello,am Shamie. I have been an ACCA student before I came to USA. I am currently left with 3 professional papers to finish ACCA. But then I want to change and do CPA since am in the USA. Can I get an exemption of FAR since I had passed the ACCA corporate reporting paper P2. Or i have to do all the 4 CPA papers

  • Sneha says:

    Hello, I am Sneha. Thank you for this great insight. I am planning to give 2 sections in one Quarter each. FAR and BEC in 2018 Q3 and REG & AUD in Q4. My question is if I, lets say,don’t pass in FAR in Q3, can I still appear exams for REG & AUD in Q4. Do I have to clear each section I am taking first and then move to second or is it okay to take the REG and AUD in Q4 and then FAR (where I failed in my 1st sitting) in Q1 2019.

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