Guide To Becoming a Certified Public Accountant

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 19, 2022

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Holding the designation of a Certified Public Accountant is one of the most well-respected professional designations an accountant can earn. Becoming a CPA requires years of education and professional experience in accounting but can also have a major impact on the overall success of your career.

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about how to become a Certified Public Accountant including job requirements, average salary and frequently asked questions about being a CPA.

What does a Certified Public Accountant do?

A certified public accountant (CPA) is a trusted financial advisor who has met the strict requirements to become licensed by their state Board of Accountancy and has the authority to perform duties such as preparing taxes, preparing government audits, representing clients in front of the IRS, bookkeeping and financial planning.

Certified Public Accountants may work for large corporations, small businesses, nonprofit organizations and in independent or group practice serving individuals and small, local groups and businesses.

Read more: Learn About Being a CPA (Certified Public Accountant)

Average salary of a Certified Public Accountant

Certified public accountants typically work full-time positions. The salary of a CPA varies based on their level of education, experience, geographic location, the company they work for and their position. The national average salary for a certified public accountant is $72,443 per year with a salary range between $20,000 and $156,000. The salary of a CPA may also be impacted by additional compensation such as overtime pay.

Related: How To Negotiate Salary (With Tips and Examples)

CPA requirements

The following are a few common requirements needed to become a CPA:

  • Must be at least 18 years of age

  • Must have a social security number

  • Must have a good moral character

  • Strong mathematical skills

  • Great communication skills

  • Strong organizational skills

  • Understanding of accounting software and Microsoft Office

  • Excellent attention to detail and strong analytical skills

  • Knowledge of local, state and federal tax laws and regulations

  • Complete the necessary education requirements to become licensed in your state

  • Complete the necessary minimum experience requirements to become licensed in your state

  • Obtain your Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification

How to become a Certified Public Accountant

Follow these steps to become a certified public accountant:

1. Know your state board's minimum requirements

When you know you want to become a CPA, it is important to research the minimum requirements you will need to meet to be eligible for the CPA exam in your state. You should check with your state's licensing board to ensure you choose the appropriate major and coursework while you are in college.

2. Earn a degree

You will need a minimum of a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting or Finance to become a Certified Public Accountant. Some states allow candidates who have a bachelor's degree in another related field such as business to sit for the CPA exam, but this varies by state. Candidates usually need a minimum of core credit hours in accounting, auditing and taxation and courses related to business such as finance, management and business law.

Most states require candidates to have completed at least 150 college credit hours, which is 30 more hours than your standard bachelor's level degree. Because of this, many CPAs have gone on to complete a master's degree although some accounting programs offer a coursework path that will allow you to earn your additional hours while completing your bachelor's degree.

3. Gain relevant experience

Most states require candidates to have a minimum amount of professional, full-time work experience in a role related to the accounting industry. The requirements of how much work experience is needed and what types of positions are acceptable is determined by your state's Board of Accountancy and varies by state. However, many states require a minimum of two years of work experience in a position working under the direct supervision of a licensed CPA.

4. Apply to take the CPA exam

Before you can take the CPA exam, you will need to apply with the state board. Application fees vary by state but range between $50 and $200. The application fee is non-refundable, so it is important to make sure you have already met all the eligibility requirements to sit for the CPA exam before you apply.

Once the state Board of Accountancy approves your application to take the CPA exam, you will be sent a document called a Notice to Schedule (NTS). You will need the NTS to schedule your appointment for each section of the CPA exam. Once you take the first section of the CPA exam, you have a period of 18 months to complete the remaining sections.

5. Prepare for the CPA exam

The Uniform CPA Exam is comprised of four sections: auditing and attestation (AUD), financial accounting and reporting (FAR), regulation (REG) and business environment and concepts (BEC). Each section of the exam is a four-hour test.

The exam is challenging, so it is important to be well-prepared for each section of the exam before you take it. You will need to study intensively for each section of the CPA Exam and make sure you are ready. Candidates should consider focusing on only one or two test sections at a time because of the rigorous preparation needed for each section.

Each section of the CPA Exam is broken into question blocks called "testlets," with each testlet being comprised of either task-based simulations or multiple-choice questions. The test is scored using a weighted scoring system, which means you will receive more scoring points for questions or tasks that are more difficult. The business environment and concepts section of the test will also test your written communication by having you write a client letter using word processing software.

6. Pass the AICPA's Uniform CPA Exam and Ethics Exam

To become a Certified Public Accountant, you will need to pass both the Uniform CPA Examination and Ethics Examination. Both exams are developed and graded by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). The CPA Exam is scored on a scale of 1-99, with candidates needing a minimum score of 75 in each section to pass.

Once you pass your CPA exam, you will be given a certificate. It is important to know that the certificate is not a license to practice as a CPA and you will need to meet all other requirements to obtain your license.

7. Get and maintain your license

After all requirements are met and you have passed each section of the Uniform CPA Exam and the Ethics Exam, the only thing left to do is to apply for your license. This process typically involves paying a licensing fee and proving you have completed the requirements. You will then receive your license in the mail. Once you are licensed as a CPA, you will need to take continuing education courses annually to maintain your license.

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take to become a Certified Public Accountant?

To become a Certified Public Accountant, it will take you a minimum of seven years as you will need to meet the minimum education and work experience requirements to be eligible to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam. Meeting the education requirements typically takes a little over four years because you need a bachelor's degree with 150 college credits. You will also need at least two years of full-time work experience in the accounting industry.

What is the difference between an accountant and a CPA?

A CPA is an accountant who has met specific licensure requirements that distinguish them as experienced and knowledgeable in their field. Having the CPA designation allows you to perform additional responsibilities beyond the scope of what an accountant without the designation can do. Accountants with no CPA designation often perform tasks such as bookkeeping, general accounting functions and some tax-related matters. However, only a CPA can provide attestation services, sign tax returns and represent a taxpayer to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

What is the job outlook for a Certified Public Accountant?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes Accountants and Auditors together into the same career group. This group has a projected job growth rate of 6% between 2018 and 2028, which is as fast as the national average for all occupations. Because Certified Public Accountants stand out as the most highly respected professionals within this field, they should experience good job stability and should have a good amount of career opportunities available to them.

What is the work environment of a Certified Public Accountant?

Certified Public Accountants typically work in office environments, although some CPAs may work remotely from home or by traveling to their clients' home or business. They spend a good amount of their workday alone, but also sometimes work within a team of other accountants or with other professionals in the accounting department such as bookkeepers, payroll clerks and auditors. Certified Public Accountants usually work a full-time schedule and many CPAs work more than 40 hours per week, especially during peak times such as tax season and the end of the budget year.

Explore more articles