How to become a CPA for international students and candidates?
Since most international candidates do not have a “preferred” state to practice their profession, they are free to pick a state board with the most favorable CPA exam requirements.
This flexibility can be overwhelming with 55 states and jurisdictions to choose from. How do you start? Which are the most popular states for international candidates?
Here are a few popular states that worked for many non-US candidates for many years, but they may no longer work due to change of rules.
Colorado used to be one of the most attractive states for international candidates. 150 credit hours were not necessary, and members of ICAI and ACCA were automatically qualified for the CPA exam.
Unfortunately, on 9th December 2009, the State Board restricted this rule. Specifically:
Sometime in early 2012 there were further restrictions applied to candidates with 3-year degrees:
used to be the only state that allow Associate degree holder (equivalent to a 3-year Bachelor degree) to sit for the exam. Rule has been changed in August 2012.
Michigan used to be a state that automatically gives out NTS (your CPA exam admission ticket) if you have a Chartered Accountant membership certificate.
They have since restricted the rules and are no longer consider CA as an educational requirement.
New Hampshire used to recognize Indian CA certificates but have stopped doing that since 2012. The latest rule (effective July 1, 2014) further restricts the eligibility.
NH used to require only 12 credit hours in accounting, which suits non-accounting majors. Since July 1, 2014, 30 accounting credit hours, 24 business credit hours and 150 overall credit hours is required.
After the July 2014 rule, you basically need to be an accounting major to get qualified. There isn’t much reason for international candidates to pick this state going forward.
Since July 2015, Montana has switched to one-tier. This means that they no longer issue stand-alone CPA certificate to those who pass the exam. Instead, Montana follows the standard rule, requiring candidates to follow the 150-hour rule and to get 1 year of relevant experience.
Candidates used to select Montana because they could get the CPA certificate for credentials only. It no longer works.
It depends on your educational background, but the following could be a good starting point for you.
Since January 2014, California has required 150 semester hours, 48 accounting credit hours (vs the previous 24), and 10 credit hours on ethics to obtain the license.
Note that while California does not require a social security number (SSN) to sit for the exam, the state board requires an SSN to grant you the license.
One advantage of registering in California is that the state board may recognize working experience verified by a non-US CPA, but it’s quite a hassle if your experience is gained outside of California.
Illinois was a 2-tier state until July 1, 2012. The full 150 credit hour is required, and the approval process takes longer than in most other states.
There is still some advantage to go through Illinois. It is one of the few states that clearly does not require social security number. There is great flexibility in the working experience requirements e.g. you don’t need a CPA to sign off your experience; your supervisor (who may or may not be a CPA) can be the verifier.
Note: IL state board requires candidates to take 3 credit hours in Research & Accounting. You may need to take an extra class for this special requirement.
You can sit for the exam in Virginia as long as you have 120 credit hours, 24 accounting credit hours and 24 business credit hours. Also, I heard that BCOM + CA could be deemed an equivalent US bachelor’s degree as long as the evaluation report says so. Given rules change all the time, BCOM + CA holders who want to take this route must first double-check with the Virginia state board.
Another great advantage of Virginia is the flexibility of working experience requirements. You need to work for 1 year in a relevant field, but unlike most other state boards, Virginia doesn’t require your supervisor (i.e. your verifier of experience) to be a CPA. This means that as long as you work in accounting, you can qualify for the license.
Restrictions/disadvantages of Virginia:
North Dakota is a typical state that requires 150 credit hours. However, if your bottle neck is on the experience requirement (i.e. cannot find a CPA to work under or verify experience for you), then North Dakota should work. Similar to Virginia, it does not require your supervisor to be a CPA and this supervisor can sign the verification form for you. What’s better than Virginia is that social security number is not required.
Update: ND now requires a CPA equivalent to verify the experience.
As long as you are an accounting major with a 4-year bachelor’s degree and do NOT practice within Guam territory (hold yourself as a Guam CPA), you can get an “inactive” license without SSN, working experience, and fulfilling the 150 credit hours.
There are quite a lot of international candidates going through Alaska, so it’s worth mentioning here. Since Alaska allows candidates to sit for the exam before graduation, 3-year BCOM degree holders can technically sit for the exam as long as they fulfill enough accounting credit hours (the requirement depends on whether you are an accounting or non-accounting major).
The working experience requirement is also quite vague: 2 years of relevant experience deemed appropriate by the Board. I suggest that you find out whether your work is acceptable (by double-checking with the state board) before applying through Alaska.
Washington requires candidates to have the full 150 credit hours to sit for the exam, but your experience can be verified by a CPA who is not your supervisor. In other words, you can verify the non-US experience that you may have by someone you know who happens to be a US CPA — could be a friend, a mentor, or a business partner… which makes things much easier.
For Washington, this verifier must be an active US CPA for 5 years or more.
Every year, around 8,000-10,000 non-US candidates take the CPA exam, representing 1/10 of the total candidates.
This exam is possible and doable for international candidates.
If you are still interested in pursuing the CPA exam, here is more information:
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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!