You know that earning the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification is an excellent idea. You know this because of all the benefits of becoming a CPA. But do you know how to become a CPA? Do you know which CPA requirements you must meet?
If you don’t, that’s fine! This guide will walk you through every single CPA requirement (and CPA Exam requirement). So, keep reading to learn all about the CPA license requirements.
Becoming a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) involves acquiring a combination of education, work experience, and passing examination scores. However, the CPA license requirements are not universal.
In the U.S., the boards of accountancy of the individual states/territories determine the regulations for accounting and dictate the requirements for CPA licensure. There is no one national governing body that makes these rules.
Therefore, each jurisdiction has a slightly different set of CPA requirements, though there are general areas of overlap within each state’s requirements.
Since each state enforces distinct CPA requirements, earning the CPA license from certain states might be easier for you than from others. And luckily, you can choose. You are allowed to pursue a CPA license in any state, even if you don’t live there.
So, to help you determine the easiest state to get a CPA license in, I’ve broken down each CPA requirement and discussed the CPA license requirements by state.
As mentioned, the accountancy jurisdictions in the United States set the CPA requirements. Specifically, there are 55 accountancy jurisdictions in the U.S., so theoretically, you have 55 options for the source of your CPA license.
But, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) have been working hard to align the requirements across the jurisdictions. So, as I also mentioned, there are commonalities among the CPA requirements for each state.
Therefore, when you see the basic CPA certification requirements that apply nationwide, you can get a better sense of what each state board of accountancy expects for their CPA candidates.
And, those basic CPA requirements would be the 3 Es:
So, all CPA candidates must meet these requirements in some way. However, many states also have one additional “E” requirement:
The 3 Es are the most generalized summary of the CPA requirements. Each state has an education, exam, and experience requirement of sorts, but the differences among the CPA state requirements manifest themselves in the type of educational credit hours needed, the CPA Exam requirements, and the amount and type of work experience expected. Which ethics exam the state uses is another point of distinction.
Therefore, determining the best state board for you also involves taking a more in-depth look at the education, exam, and experience requirements for each state.
In order for a CPA candidate to earn the license, all state boards require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, and almost all state boards insist that candidates earn 150 total credit hours of education. The bachelor’s degree does not always have to be in accounting.
Furthermore, each state expects the 150 credit hours to include a certain number of accounting hours, but this number varies from state to state.
Many states require candidates to have more upper-level accounting and business courses than a typical bachelor’s degree involves. Others maintain that an accounting degree covers the coursework they’d like to see in a CPA candidate.
Generally, the state boards want to see very specific accounting courses, such as U.S. Tax. Many boards of accountancy even hold out for specific business classes or college level math, for instance, with their CPA course requirements.
Several jurisdictions also specify the number of lower-level accounting and business credit hours that each candidate must complete.
Every state board requires CPA candidates to pass the Uniform CPA Examination. The AICPA developed the Uniform CPA Examination with input from NASBA and the state boards of accountancy. The CPA Exam consists of 4 sections that cover a wide range of accounting topics.
Specifically, the CPA Exam sections include:
The CPA Exam sections present several different question types in a series of testlets. These question types include:
Candidates have 4 hours of total testing time for each exam section, and they must pass all 4 sections of the exam within an 18-month period.
Each state board of accountancy also defines the CPA Exam eligibility requirements that candidates must meet in order to sit for the exam.
Almost all of the state boards want candidates to have 120 credit hours of education, the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, before they will let you sit for the CPA Exam.
But, can you take the CPA Exam while still in school? Yes, some states let you sit for the exam with less than 120 credit hours if you’re close to graduating.
For example, several states require you to be within a certain timeframe of securing the 120 hours, such as 6 months away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree or within 15 credit hours of the 120-hour requirement.
Other states make the 150-hour rule part of their CPA test requirements. These states might make similar provisions for those who are close to acquiring 150 credit hours.
Finally, many state boards also require you to have a certain number of upper-level accounting credit hours before you can sit for the CPA Exam.
Ultimately, each state board decides who is eligible to sit for the exam in their state. I try my best to keep up with each state’s requirements in the pages on my site, but these requirements change sporadically and without much warning.
Therefore, the best way for you to be certain that your understanding of your state board’s requirements is up to date is to visit your state board’s website or contact them directly.
The CPA work requirement has the most variability of all the requirements.
I’ve seen state boards that only accept experience under a licensed CPA, while others readily accept academic and non-public accounting experience. Many states substitute higher amounts of non-public accounting work experience for lower amounts of experience acquired under the direct supervision of a CPA.
Most states require 1-2 years of relevant accounting experience, and they often make provisions for part-time work as well.
If none of the CPA requirements sound like they will be a problem for you to fulfill based on your current career track, then you should register to take the CPA Exam and earn the CPA license in the state in which you reside. You can use this list to learn more about your state’s specific CPA requirements.
If you believe that meeting the requirements of the state in which you currently reside will be too challenging, then a different state may be a better fit for you. Furthermore, if you don’t have 150 credit hours, are a non-accounting major, lack the required work experience, or are not a U.S. citizen/resident, you will have fewer state board options from which to choose.
So, either way, you can determine the easiest state to become a CPA by comparing your current qualifications and plans for the future with the CPA state requirements and discovering how you can meet those requirements in your situation.
A typical 4-year bachelor’s degree only awards you 120 credit hours of education. Therefore, you must acquire additional education to meet the CPA education requirement of 150 credit hours.
What’s more, you must understand that 150 hours is the standard for all accounting students graduating within the U.S. Therefore, the state boards are simply asking you to match that standard.
In the past, some states allowed candidates to get the CPA license with just 120 credit hours (California, Colorado, Delaware, New Hampshire), but almost every state now enforces the 150-hour rule.
The only state that does not currently require 150 hours for the CPA license is the U.S. Virgin Islands jurisdiction. Currently, the U.S. Virgin Islands jurisdiction allows you to become a CPA with a bachelor’s degree that includes at least 120 semester hours of education. Your degree must be in an accounting concentration or a board-approved equivalent.
However, on May 16, 2020, the U.S. Virgin Islands will begin requiring 150 credit hours.
Once this final jurisdiction requires 150 credit hours, you will no longer be able to become a CPA with 120 credit hours in any state.
Instead of a full accounting degree, some states simply require candidates to have a certain number of accounting credits to earn the CPA license. Usually, these state boards ask for about 24 credit hours in accounting.
But oftentimes, these states will enforce a stricter experience requirement to compensate for less stringent educational requirements.
For example, the U.S. Virgin Islands has 2 paths to CPA licensure that do not specify a certain number of required accounting courses. Instead, these options substitute higher levels of work experience for the presence of particular accounting education hours.
South Carolina, on the other hand, requires CPA candidates to have 24 semester hours in accounting courses. So, the range of CPA class requirements among jurisdictions is fairly broad.
Many CPA state boards also specify the level of accounting courses you must take. They often limit lower-level accounting classes and require more upper-level (junior-level and above, 300+) courses.
Additionally, several states have certain mandatory courses that each CPA candidate must take to fulfill the upper-level requirements. Moreover, a jurisdiction also has the prerogative to disallow lower-level credits earned through non-traditional methods.
To use South Carolina as an example again, this jurisdiction requires 24 of the 36 semester hours in accounting to be junior level or above. They also include a list of 4 mandatory upper-level courses: cost/managerial accounting, auditing, intermediate/financial accounting, and U.S. Tax. South Carolina also does not accept non-traditional credits such as placement credits and exemptions.
Consequently, some jurisdictions are much more particular about the accounting courses you must take. For this reason, earning the CPA as a non-accounting major usually involves a bit more concentration and effort.
The process of earning 150 credit hours is simpler than most of us realize.
The easiest way to do it is to enroll in an integrated 5-year professional accounting school or program that leads to a master’s degree in accounting. But because doing so involves planning in advance, we may not all be in such a lucky spot. So, we have to do the next best thing for our situations.
If you’re an accounting major, you can combine your undergraduate accounting degree with a master’s degree at the same school or at a different one. Or, you can even just take non-degree courses from an accredited educational institution. That means you could take courses like Japanese Culture or Golf 101 from a community college to bump up your credit count.
If you’re not an accounting major, then you must be extra careful to learn the exact number of type of accounting classes your state board expects. Then, you must take the necessary accounting and business courses your state board demands credit for as you increase your number of credit hours to 150.
To do so, you can enhance your undergraduate degree with a master’s in accounting or an MBA with a concentration in accounting. You can also learn about programs that offer specific tax and accounting credits along with other ways to fill in your accounting-credit gaps.
Can you earn the CPA license without work experience? Not really. But in some states, the CPA experience requirements are laxer than in others.
For example, most states nowadays are fine with general accounting work from private industries, government, and even academic teaching positions. Therefore, a non-public accounting career plan shouldn’t be an issue when choosing a CPA state board of accountancy.
Instead, due to the popularity of leniency in this area, you have several options for fulfilling the CPA work experience requirement.
If you have never worked in public accounting and don’t plan to work in public accounting, you still have several state boards for which to choose. However, some of these state boards require additional years of experience from a non-public accounting field.
North Carolina, for example, requires 4 years of experience teaching accounting at a college or university or 4 years of experience working in the field of accounting without the supervision of a CPA. On the other hand, this jurisdiction only requires 1 year of accounting experience under the supervision of a CPA. That’s quite a difference!
Many other states only require 1 year of work experience, whether it be in academics, general accounting, or public accounting. So, if you don’t plan to work in public accounting, you should seek to apply to one of these states, as you wouldn’t to have to work 4 times longer than necessary (like you would in North Carolina) if you don’t have to.
Maybe you’ve never worked under a U.S. CPA and never plan to. For example, maybe you work in private industry where CPAs are less common. Or maybe you work outside the U.S. and your supervisor isn’t licensed in the United States.
In these cases, you’ll need to find a state board of accountancy that makes allowances for these situations with their CPA experience requirements. Some states do when the candidates can prove that substantial accounting skills have been relevant to their jobs.
And typically, any supervisor who can reasonably verify that you are using relevant accounting skills will suffice. However, self-employment does not usually satisfy the work experience requirement.
Examples of states you could apply to when you don’t plan to work under a CPA include the jurisdictions of Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia, as they recognize experience supervised by a non-CPA. So, as long as you work in a relevant field, you can get the license for one of these states.
Finally, there are even some states that don’t require any working experience. But CPA licenses they offer in these situations restrict how you can hold yourself out as a CPA. These jurisdictions are Guam, which has an inactive license, and Massachusetts, which has a non-reporting license.
If you are not allowed to work in the U.S. (e.g., H4 visa holders), you must find creative ways to fulfill the experience requirement.
The best way to get your previous experience verified is either apply for a restricted license from Guam or Massachusetts, register in a state with lower work experience supervision standards, or volunteer for CPA-supervised work.
My information on the CPA Exam for international students tells you more about how to take one of these steps.
And remember, the state boards use their discretion to determine whether you have properly fulfilled the work requirement.
About half of the state boards accept part-time work. However, listing them all would be rather tedious, and the information about their requirements changes often.
Therefore, once you narrow down your state board options, you might want to confirm that they accept part-time work by emailing them directly.
Many states welcome international candidates. However, there are a few exceptions in which states have citizenship or residency requirements.
These states only grant licenses to U.S. citizens:
These jurisdictions grant licenses only to residents of their state or territory:
And finally, Guam offers a restricted CPA license.
The remaining states don’t have citizenship or residency restrictions.
Each state board’s website provides instructions on how to register for the CPA Exam. Also, some state boards work with NASBA to accept CPA Exam applications. Therefore, you should consult NASBA’s website and your state board’s website to discover the CPA Exam application procedure you must follow.
Now that you know all about the CPA requirements, you can take the next step toward becoming a CPA.
If you are still in school, choose your courses wisely and make sure you pass your accounting and business courses so you can meet the 150-hour rule. If you have graduated, begin the process of taking the CPA Exam by narrowing down your list of state board options.
Finally, learn more about the journey to the CPA certification by signing up for my free e-course. I have a version for U.S. candidates and international candidates, and each one will tell you how to pass the CPA Exam on your first attempt and earn the CPA license. Check out everything they have to offer or sign up below!
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!