How to Become a CPA: 10 Steps to the Certified Public Accountant Certification

how to become a cpa

Are you ready to learn how to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)? If so, that’s awesome! Accountancy is one of the most secure, stable jobs in any economic cycle, which is important to consider as you plan your future. Furthermore, earning a certification like the CPA is becoming more and more crucial to career advancement in the accounting industry. Therefore, I’m happy to help you along this path. To do so, I’ll tell you the 10 steps you must take. I’ll also explain how long does it take to become a CPA. Let me show you how to become a CPA!

How to Become a CPA in the USA: 10 Steps

Each of these steps is vital to earning the CPA certification. The CPA journey is a significant undertaking, too. Therefore, you must be completely committed if you want to succeed. Don’t skip any of these steps. Instead, give each your all. That way, you can reach CPA success as soon as possible.

How to become a CPA accountant

  1. First, learn about the benefits of the CPA.
  2. Compare the CPA to other accounting certifications.
  3. Learn what does it take to become a CPA.
  4. Learn about the CPA fees vs. your increased salary.
  5. Meet the CPA education requirements and ensure you know what to study to become an accountant.
  6. Register for the CPA Exam after meeting the exam requirements to become a CPA.
  7. Schedule your CPA Exam.
  8. Study for and then pass the CPA Exam (passing will be much easier if you know what courses to take to become an accountant in step 5).
  9. Take the ethics exam, if required by your state board of accountancy.
  10. And finally, gain qualified work experience before applying for the CPA license.

Next, I’ll go over these steps about how to become an accountant in more detail.

Step 1. Identify the Benefits of the U.S. CPA Certification

Before we jump into the how, what, and when of the certification procedure and how to become a licensed CPA, let’s figure out the why. What advantages can you get from becoming a CPA?

The CPA certification provides accountants with these sizable benefits:

  1. Increased earning potential
  2. Better benefits and incentives
  3. Additional job opportunities
  4. Greater job stability
  5. More job flexibility

These benefits are my five reasons to become a CPA but don’t just take my word for it. For instance, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the creator of the CPA Exam, also explains why you might want to become a CPA. The AICPA confirms that the CPA can accelerate the career of an accounting major. It can also open doors in the U.S and around the world for seasoned international accountants. Finally, the CPA can secure the promotion a stuck senior finance professional deserves. In the accounting industry, earning the CPA is one of the best ways to maximize your potential and reach your career goals.

As a CPA candidate, you’re going to need this motivation. After all, you need a strong reason to start the CPA journey because the road ahead can be quite tough and long. As a result, consider the list of benefits to determine if the CPA is right for you. They’ll also remind you why you’re pursuing the CPA in the difficult months to come.

Step 2. Compare the CPA to Other Accounting Certifications

Clearly, the CPA certification is very beneficial for an accounting career. But is it beneficial for your accounting career? Moreover, do the advantages of the CPA align with your long-term plans? Or would a different certification supply you with the same gains for less time, money, and effort? So before looking into how do you become a Certified Public Accountant, make sure it fits your career plans.

To be sure the CPA is the certification you want, you should first look into other accounting certification options. Alternatives to the U.S. CPA include the equivalent in your home country [such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and Chartered Accountants (CA)] or other global accounting and finance qualifications like the CMA, CFA, and CIA.

Similarly, you may want to learn about advanced degrees before pursuing certification. Be sure to consider a master’s degree, either in accounting or a related field, like an MBA. That way, you can choose the best means by which to advance your personal career.

Step 3. Analyze Your Ability

What do you need to become a CPA? Well, I’ve already mentioned that getting CPA certified is a challenge. But if you’d like some proof, consider these CPA facts.

Demanding requirements

The CPA has some of the most demanding requirements of any accounting certification. In the U.S., individual states grant the CPA license, so the state boards of accountancy determine the licensure requirements. Most state boards have settled on these three CPA requirements:

  1. Pass the Uniform CPA Exam
  2. Earn 150 credit hours of education
  3. Acquire 1-2 years of accounting experience

Some state boards also expect candidates to meet an additional requirement by passing an ethics exam. While the general requirements are the same across the country, the specifics vary per jurisdiction. Therefore, you must contact the state board to which you would like to apply to find out exactly what it’s going to take to earn the CPA and if you’ve got it in you.

Low exam pass rates

Is the CPA Exam hard? Well, the CPA Exam pass rates have a reputation for being fairly low. While the percentages rise and fall from quarter to quarter, the average CPA Exam pass rate is less than 50%. The exam’s purpose includes protecting the public interest, and as long as that’s the case, I expect the exam will always be quite tough. In order to better test the knowledge and abilities required of current CPAs, the AICPA regularly modifies the exam with changes like content updates, new question types, altered question totals, and testing time adjustments. However, you don’t need to be discouraged by the low pass rates because they don’t mean that you can’t pass. Instead, they simply signify that passing the CPA Exam requires a lot of time, effort, and focus. So, if you’re ready to commit to that, you can pass it.

Challenging exam

The CPA Exam contains four sections that test your knowledge of various accounting topics through a significant number of questions. On top of that, the CPA Exam also uses over 600 tasks representing the work of a real CPA to assess your accounting skills. The AICPA has assigned one of the following skill levels to each representative task:

CPA Exam Skill Levels

(Lowest to Highest)

Skill Level Definition
Remembering and Understanding The perception and comprehension of the significance of an area utilizing knowledge gained.
Application The use or demonstration of knowledge, concepts, or techniques.
Analysis The examination and study of the interrelationships of separate areas in order to identify causes and find evidence to support inferences.
Evaluation The examination or assessment of problems, and use of judgment to draw conclusions.

While these skill levels may sound intimidating, the AICPA has established the difficulty of these skills within the context of the CPA Exam. Besides, depending on your personal background and abilities, some of the tasks may not be hard for you. Regardless, the CPA Exam intends to prove you have the abilities of a CPA. Because you can acquire these skills on the job and by using a CPA review course, you don’t need to fear. Rather, you just need to put in the work.

Strict exam time limit

Finally, you must adhere to the strict rolling 18-month window in which you must pass the exam. This time period starts as soon as you pass your first section of the four CPA Exam sections. Therefore, you technically have 18 months to pass the remaining three sections. If you don’t pass the rest of the exam during this time period, you will lose credit for the first section you passed. At that point, you must pass that section again as well as the other remaining sections in 18 months.

This CPA schedule and time limit may sound intimidating, but it is actually more time than you need. That’s because passing the CPA Exam in a year or less is quite possible. After all, you just need to establish a study schedule, stick to it, and keep moving forward with each exam section.

Beyond the reality of the CPA certification process, you have other matters to consider, too. For example, you must weigh the costs of pursuing the CPA license.

Step 4. Perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Before you can enjoy the benefits of the CPA, the certification is going to cost you. You’ll pay for the CPA with your time and energy but with your money as well.

How much does it cost to earn the CPA?

Exam fees and review course materials are inevitable and immediate expenses that come with a combined price tag of at least US$3,000. You may also encounter additional expenses such as an evaluation report, travel to a testing center, license fees, and CPE (continuing professional education) courses to keep your license active. However, you can learn more in my breakdown of the CPA Exam fees.

I mentioned many of the benefits of the CPA in my first point. As you recall, the most practical and tangible certification benefit is the increase in salary. You’ll probably make more after becoming a CPA to help offset the cost of earning the certification in the first place. To better understand your potential as a CPA, check out my CPA salary guide.

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Step 5. Meet the CPA Education Requirement

As I’ve pointed out, the CPA certification process includes meeting the state boards’ CPA requirements, which can slightly vary. The majority of state boards require candidates to have 120 credit hours of education (the equivalent of a 4-year bachelor’s degree) before sitting for the CPA Exam. Furthermore, most state boards prefer that you have a college degree in accounting. But at the very least, you usually must have 24 credit hours of accounting courses and 24 credit hours of business courses.

You can sit for the CPA Exam once you’ve earned the 120 credit hours. However, you can’t secure the CPA certification until you’ve extended your education to 150 credit hours (the equivalent of a master’s degree).

Regarding education, what do you have to do to become a CPA?

Thankfully, you have several options to earn the credits you need to meet this CPA requirement:

Acquire all the necessary hours at the undergraduate level

  • Get your bachelor’s degree and take additional classes at the graduate level
  • Get a master’s degree in accounting from a 5-year accounting program
  • Combine an undergraduate degree in accounting with a master’s degree in a different discipline
  • Combine an undergraduate degree in a different discipline with a master’s degree in accounting
  • Earn an MBA with an accounting concentration

As soon as you’ve earned the 120 hours, you should register to sit for the CPA Exam. If you live and work in the US, you can apply to your resident state board. For international candidates, you may select a state board according to their specific CPA education requirements and how you plan to fulfill them.

What courses to take to become an accountant

Most states require CPA candidates to have a certain number of upper-level accounting courses, but it varies by jurisdiction. Plus, some want candidates to take specific courses in topics like business and U.S. tax. Nevertheless, you should check the CPA requirements in your state.

Step 6. Register for the CPA Exam Sections

Once your state board CPA application has been approved, you can register to sit for the CPA Exam. All future CPAs in the U.S. must take the same exam, officially known as the Uniform CPA Examination.

The AICPA administers this computer-based examination covering intermediate and advanced accounting. The exam also addresses related fields such as business, law, and taxation.

Additionally, the four exam sections take on a wide range of topics within these areas. The exam sections also include three different question types: multiple-choice (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs), and written communications (WCs). The exam presents dozens of these questions in a total of 5 testlets, which you must complete in 4 hours.

CPA Exam Format

Testlets Auditing and Attestation (AUD) Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) Regulation (REG)
1: MCQs 36 31 33 38
2: MCQs 36 31 33 38
3: TBSs 2 2 2 2
4: TBSs 3 2 3 3
5: TBSs/WCs 3 TBSs 3 WCs 3 TBSs 3 TBSs

I know that the exam format sounds tricky at first.  But, you will get used to it as you go through the CPA Exam application process and use a CPA review course to study. While the CPA Exam is not a simple test, you’re an accountant, so I know you can handle a few more numbers.

What’s more, you can start with any exam section you like. I suggest you begin with the part you feel most comfortable with and then build your CPA Exam schedule out from there.

In addition, the exam is available to take every weekday. In the past, candidates could only sit for the exam during the following CPA Exam testing windows:

  • January 1 to March 10
  • April 1 to June 10
  • July 1 to September 10
  • October 1 to December 10

But now, candidates can take the exam at any time of the year, as long as a testing center is open. Plus, remember that you must pass all four sections within 18 months.

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Step 7. Locate the Closest Testing Center and Schedule the Exam

Upon successful registration, you will receive your Notice to Schedule (NTS). It includes a launch code to use when scheduling testing appointments. You will also need this document on exam day, so don’t lose it.

Next, you can schedule your CPA Exam testing appointment at the Prometric website. Prometric is a company that runs testing centers for the CPA Exam and many other computerized professional exams.

Moreover, you are allowed to register in one state and physically take the exam in another state. Also, international candidates can sit for the exam at the CPA Exam international sites. You should always check with NASBA because international locations can change, but they currently include Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, England, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the UAE. Likewise, international candidates can take the exam at these sites as long as they are citizens or long-term residents of those (or oftentimes adjacent) countries.

Step 8. Prepare for the CPA Exam

The AICPA provides a free introduction to the CPA Exam in the CPA Exam Sample Tests and Tutorial Topics. The tutorial leads you through the features and functionality of the exam. Then, the four sample tests let you interact with perfectly accurate recreations of each exam section. These recreations include examples of all the question types on the exam. Also, you can actually answer these example questions. Additionally, you can even see the correct answers to these questions.

To improve your chance of CPA Exam success, I highly recommend that you use a CPA review course to study for the exam. The most popular courses on the market include both online and offline materials. They also supply tons of practice questions, offer extensive customer support, and boast high pass rates. Therefore, you can prepare for the exam much more efficiently and effectively when you rely on a CPA review course.

Step 9. Take the Ethics Exam

After you pass the CPA Exam, you may also have to pass a CPA ethics exam depending on your state board’s requirements. Most state boards require candidates to pass some form of an ethics exam, whether it be the AICPA’s version or a version created by the state. Either way, the ethics exam is a self-study open book test that is much easier than the CPA Exam.

Step 10. Gain Relevant Work Experience

Most states require you to have 1 to 2 years of professional accounting experience in order to obtain the CPA license. If you are already a working accountant or a student with an accounting job waiting for you after graduation, then fulfilling this requirement will simply involve keeping your job and being patient.

However, if you do not plan to work in a public accounting firm or don’t plan to work in the U.S., you need to be aware of two issues. First, a few state boards have strict CPA experience requirements and only recognize public accounting experience. Second, for most states, a practicing CPA (i.e., an active CPA license holder instead of a certificate holder) must supervise and/or verify your experience. So, you must make sure that your boss meets this qualification.

How long does it take to become a CPA?

Just how long does it take to become an accountant with a CPA license? Although everyone’s path will be different, here’s a basic summary:

Become a CPA requirements and timeline

  • Education: Most candidates need 5-6 years to earn the 150 credit hours needed for the CPA license
  • Exam: On average, candidates need 18 months to pass the CPA Exam. My article about the CPA Exam schedule has tips for passing the exam on time.
  • Experience: Depending on your jurisdiction’s rules, you’ll need 1-2 years of qualified experience.

FAQs

What is a CPA (Certified Public Accountant)?

Simply put, a Certified Public Accountant is an accountant who holds a CPA license from their state board of accountancy. Moreover, CPAs have more legal authority than accountants without this certification. For instance, only CPAs can legally audit public companies and review financial statements for the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). Plus, CPAs (along with tax attorneys and Enrolled Agents) have unlimited representation rights to represent their clients before the IRS, but uncredentialled accountants do not.

If you need more info, I have an entire post about CPA jobs and the normal day-to-day work of a CPA.

Where can I find information about how to become a licensed CPA in my state?

In the United States, individual boards of accountancy set the specific requirements for how to become a public accountant in that specific location. And since there are 55 boards in the US (one for every state and jurisdiction), you definitely need to verify if your board has any unique requirements. For that reason, check out this article about CPA requirements by state—it breaks down everything you need to know about how to become a certified accountant in your state.

What’s more, you’ll need your jurisdiction’s specific requirements if you’re trying to estimate how long to become an accountant. After all, some states expect CPA holders to have more years of experience than others.

How to become a Certified Public Accountant as an international candidate?

International candidates can become U.S. CPAs, too, as long as they meet the requirements. In addition, international CPA candidates might even be eligible to take a shortened version of the CPA Exam called the IQEX if they are already a member of certain accounting bodies.

How do I become a CPA if I’m not an accountant?

Even if you’re not an accountant, you can start your journey to become a Certified Public Accountant today! After all, some state boards only require CPA candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in accounting. Consequently, you just need to pass the CPA Exam, gain your work experience, and apply for the CPA license. I have more info in this post about CPA requirements by state.

How do you become a CPA without a master’s degree?

While it’s true that you need 150 hours of higher education to become CPA certified, you don’t necessarily need a master’s degree. Instead, you can get a bachelor’s degree and take some additional coursework. I actually have an entire post about meeting the CPA education requirements.

What degrees do I need for the Certified Public Accountant license?

What degree do you need to become a CPA? Well, that depends on your state. Some state boards expect candidates to have degrees in accounting or a related field, but others do not. To get started, verify the CPA requirements in your state to find out if you need an accounting degree or not.

Can I become an accountant without a degree?

If you want to earn a CPA license, you’ll need a degree. State boards of accountancy require candidates to have a US bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. My CPA education guide has the details you need to determine if your degree will meet the requirements or if you’ll need to go back to school for a few courses.

What courses do I need to become a CPA?

So, what subjects are needed for the CPA? The answer depends on the state where you plan to become a CPA. However, many state boards expect candidates to have specific coursework in accounting, business, tax law, and more. Therefore, if you’re still in school, read about your state’s CPA requirements before signing up for classes.

Is a certain GPA required to earn the CPA?

No, a certain GPA is not required for taking the CPA Exam or earning the license. However, candidates with strong grades, especially in their accounting courses, may find the study process easier. And they might pass the CPA Exam faster, too.

When should I take the CPA Exam?

I suggest taking the CPA Exam as soon as possible. For example, many states allow students to sit for the CPA Exam when they are almost finished with their coursework, and that’s a great option. Otherwise, if you’re out of school, start studying now and take it as soon as you’re ready.

Are CPA mentors recommended to pass the CPA Exam?

The need for a CPA mentor is really up to you, but some candidates do find mentors to be helpful. For example, some of the best CPA review courses now include exam mentors and even personal tutoring as part of their packages.

What work experience is required for the CPA license?

The answer depends on your state and your educational background, but most state boards expect candidates to have 1-2 years of qualified work experience. However, you might need more if you don’t have an accounting degree or previous employment in public accounting. Moreover, check on the CPA requirements in your state to verify the number of months or years of work experience you’ll need for the license.

Are CPAs required to join the AICPA?

Since the CPA license is granted by the state boards of accountancy instead of the AICPA, CPAs are not required to join the organization to maintain their license.

How long does it take to become a senior accountant?

The length of time it takes to become a senior accountant depends on your work performance. However, most accountants must work for 4 or 5 years before being offered a senior accountant position at their firm.

Can I become a senior accountant without the CPA?

In most cases, the answer to this question is “no.” Usually, a CPA license is required for staff accountants to be promoted to senior accountants, especially in Big 4 firms.

Where can I find more information about how to become a staff accountant?

Staff accountants generally need math, computer, and communication skills. Plus, staff accountants often need a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, aspiring staff accountants should plan to build their knowledge in an undergraduate program with an accounting focus.

What is required to become a CPA lawyer?

If you’re searching the internet for how to become a CPA JD, you can stop. After all, a specific CPA/JD designation does not exist. However, if you’re interested in becoming a tax lawyer, you might benefit from both a JD degree as well as a CPA license. First, you must earn a JD degree. Then, you must follow the requirements for how to become CPA certified and apply for the CPA license in your chosen jurisdiction.

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The Technical Guide on How to Become a CPA

To learn more about the actual CPA Exam application process, check out this video:

More Help for Becoming a CPA

I know the process sounds complicated. But, once you take the first step in your CPA journey, you’ll find that it’s completely doable. And, I am more than happy to help you along the way!

I have created a FREE mini-course to provide further assistance to CPA candidates who are just starting out. I have two versions, each designed for candidates with different backgrounds:

* Those with U.S. degrees or who
graduated/live/work in the U.S.

^ Those who study abroad or who
graduated/live/work outside of the U.S.

Action is the key to success. Join us now so you can achieve your CPA dreams!

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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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