How to Become a CPA: A Comprehensive Guide

how to become a cpa

Becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) takes grit and hard work, but it pays off in the end. 

As a CPA, you can have a long and lucrative career. In addition to earning a good salary, you will encounter challenges and be a part of an essential industry. 

Because it does have both prestige and influence, the process for becoming a CPA can be arduous.

There are a few steps to take as you learn how to become a CPA. 

First, you will have to fulfill all of the CPA exam requirements before you can take the very difficult CPA exam. (See our page about California CPA requirements if you plan to take the exam there.)

The FAR CPA exam section, in particular, is gruelingly tough to pass.

(Check out our post on FAR CPA exam tips for help with this challenging section of the test.)

You will need to be prepared for an intensive season of study and preparation to pass that test.  

After passing the CPA exam, you will have to get licensed in your state and maintain that license for your accounting practice.

Difficult, yes. Impossible? No way! 

People like you crush the CPA exam every day. You just need all of the right info to take all of the steps to become a CPA. 

Fulfill the requirements for certified public accountants

become a cpa

There are certain requirements for certified public accountants, which you’ll need to meet if you want to become a CPA. 

These requirements come from national and state bodies, and some can vary by state. 

In most states, there are strict educational requirements that include a bachelor’s degree. However, there are some states where you can be a CPA without an accounting degree, through apprenticeship or work experience. 

Here is a review of the basic experience and education you need to have to be eligible to become a CPA. 

Citizenship qualification

People who are not citizens of the United States may still qualify to become a certified public accountant. To do this, the state board of accountancy requirements must be met in one of the U.S. states or jurisdictions. 

The CPA exam is offered in all 50 states and the five international jurisdictions.

The CPA exam does have to be taken in English. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants provides the only way to take the CPA exam, and they do offer the test at international locations. 

There will be additional fees for taking the exam internationally. International testing facilities are located in:

  • Japan
  • Brazil
  • Bahrain
  • Lebanon
  • Kuwait
  • United Arab Emirates
  • England
  • Scotland
  • Ireland
  • Germany

The licensing process is the same as it is for CPA candidates in the U.S.

Social security identification

Each state has different accounting requirements that stipulate whether or not CPA candidates must have social security identification. 

Some states will require a social security number. Others will not. 

You can go here and select a jurisdiction to find the state-specific standards published by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA).

Age restrictions

You have to be 18 years old in all 50 states and five jurisdictions before you can take the CPA exam. This is the minimum age requirement for the CPA exam.

Work experience requirements

In some states, work requirements will suffice to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam. For those states, having worked with a CPA compensates for not having a bachelor’s degree or a degree in accounting. 

You may need to have between one and five years of experience to meet this requirement. The work requirement isn’t necessary for anyone — it exists to give people who don’t meet the educational requirements a chance to sit for the exam and ultimately obtain a CPA license.

Educational requirements

Most states require a certain level of education to take the CPA exam. In some, you must have a degree in accounting. 

Typically, you need to have a bachelor’s degree of equivalent hours of college courses. In most states, there is a set number of college credit hours that are required. These range from 120-150 credit hours. For many students, this course count actually exceeds a typical four-year degree. 

The AICPA reports that these high educational requirements are in place to ensure that people coming into the accounting field are expertly prepared for the challenging tasks it will hold. Keep in mind that, even after becoming an accountant, there will still be ongoing continuing education requirements.

Becoming a CPA without a degree

If you don’t have an accounting degree, you may still be able to become an accountant without going back to school. While this is increasingly uncommon, it may be possible to become a CPA without a degree. 

In certain states, the exam qualifications can include meeting work experience requirements at an accounting firm, as explained above. It is also possible for college students to take additional accounting courses or other classes to add enough credits to qualify. 

There are many ways to qualify. It will be vital to review your state requirements to understand your options.

Apply to take the CPA exam

apply to take the cpa exam

There are multiple steps to applying and taking the CPA exam. Before you even begin studying, you will want to determine your eligibility and submit some paperwork.

Here is the AICPA recommended sequence of events:

  1. Understand the exam: the examination process and assessment
  2. Read the NASBA Candidate Bulletin
  3. Determine your eligibility
  4. Select a jurisdiction where you intend to be licensed and learn the specific requirements
  5. Apply for the CPA exam
  6. Receive your Authorization to Test, which confirms your eligibility
  7. Receive a Notice to Schedule (NTS), which gives you six months to schedule your exam
  8. Pick a date that you plan to take the exam
  9. Schedule an exam at a Prometric facility
  10. Understand and pay all relevant fees
  11. Study for the CPA exam
  12. Take all four parts of the CPA exam within 18 months
  13. If relevant for your state, take the ethics exam

Submit CPA exam application and fees

There are some fees you will have to pay both to apply for and take the CPA exam. These vary by state. Here is a list of the average fees. You will want to keep in mind that your fees could be several hundred dollars, depending on where you are taking the exam. 

Here’s a rundown of the typical CPA exam cost:

Type of FeeAverage/Estimated Cost
CPA review course$1,300-$3,400
CPA exam application fee$300
CPA registration fees$400
CPA exam fees$800
CPA ethics exam fees$175

In total, you could pay around $3,500 to take the CPA exam. 

Obtain your Authorization to Test (ATT)

The Authorization to Test, or ATT, confirms your eligibility to take the CPA exam. 

In most states, the ATT will be issued with a 90-day window in which you have to register and pay for some or all of the four sections of the CPA exam. These can cost around $200 each and payment may be due before you schedule your exam.

Obtain your Notice to Schedule (NTS)

The Notice to Schedule, or NTS, is the official documentation that you are eligible to take the CPA exam. This authorization notice can take a few weeks to receive. 

After the NTS, you are automatically in a validation period, which applies a time limit to the sections of the test that you paid for after receiving your ATT. While you don’t have to take all four parts of the exam at the same time, you do have to schedule them within 18 months of each other.

Schedule your exam

There are four testing windows, one in each quarter of the year. These are the only four times the CPA exam is offered each year. They are:

  1. January 1-March 10
  2. April 1-June 10
  3. July 1-September 10
  4. October 1-December 10

You can schedule your CPA exam online at Prometric. A map tool helps you find the nearest location and you can create a new appointment or change an existing appointment. You can also use this website to schedule an exam internationally.

Choose a CPA review course and start studying

choose a review course

A good review course is essential to doing well on the CPA exam. If you’re not sure how to study for the CPA exam, these courses will give you everything you need to study efficiently and effectively for this difficult test.

The CPA exam is a big test requiring a great deal of intricate knowledge. While there are many free resources, most people who are serious about passing the CPA exam on the first try decide to buy a CPA review course. 

These courses are available from a number of providers. Read our CPA course comparison to find out the pros and cons of the most popular options, including Wiley CPAExcel, Gleim CPA Review, Surgent CPA Review, and Roger CPA Review.

Whichever course you choose, you want to be sure that it has some essential features that are proven to help people pass the CPA exam. These include:

  • Large multiple-choice test banks
  • Task-based simulation
  • Flashcards and other memorization tools
  • Practice test
  • Test readiness scores

The other considerations are choosing the way a CPA review course is formatted, how the material is presented, and whether those things work best with your learning style. 

After choosing a course, it is essential that you commit to studying. Most experts recommend that you study 300-400 hours in total for the CPA exam. Knowing that, you will be able to plan for your course dates and the lifestyle adjustments you need to make as you prepare.

Find out what you need to study

A good CPA review course will cover all of the most relevant information for the exam. The AICPA updates its blueprints every year, meaning that each section of the exam is edited in some way. 

This keeps the materials fresh for the industry and also presents a challenge to test-takers. If you are studying on your own, you will need to do significant research to understand which materials are going to help you cover all areas of knowledge. 

CPA review courses are annually updated to reflect the latest AICPA blueprints, ensuring that you have access to the latest, greatest information.

Get an accounting internship

Accounting internships are available both to college students and other people who want to become certified public accountants. 

An internship can be a powerful way to familiarize yourself with the accounting industry. Auditing and tax internships may be available year-round, but many happen during summer or start in January. One of the bonuses of having an accounting internship as you prepare for the CPA exam is the ability to ask people who have taken the test for their advice and guidance.

Find a good study buddy

Support is essential as you study for the CPA exam. It may be helpful to find other people who are also studying. Getting a study buddy can help you with accountability, and you may be more inclined to stick to your study schedule if you have someone to partner with. 

Study buddies are also helpful for active, audible practice. You may benefit from an in-person study buddy or a virtual study buddy. Some CPA online review courses have live-chats, live classes and social platforms that give you networking opportunities.

Review all the practice questions

The CPA exam includes both multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. Together, your performance in both areas determines your score. 

You will want to rigorously practice all of the multiple-choice questions you can find. If you purchase a good CPA review course, this will be a key feature. Some multiple-choice question test banks have over 10,000 questions. Intuitive software can help you revisit subjects in which you need to improve. However you are studying, learning the general structure, thought patterns and subject matter you will be tested on is important for your success on the CPA exam.

Try to not only learn the information, but to understand it

In addition to rote memorization of facts, it’s important that you thoroughly read all study materials. This will help you understand the ideas behind the facts, which is what the CPA exam is really designed to test. 

That is why there are task-based simulations in addition to multiple-choice questions. These will present scenarios in which you have to apply the concepts you have learned. This higher-level thinking is not only important to pass the CPA exam, but will play an important role in your career as an accountant.

Be persistent especially if you fail the first time

According to the AICPA, the 2019 pass rates of the CPA exam were less than 60% cumulatively for each section. 

In a sense, that should encourage you. Many people fail one or more of the sections. While there is a cost to retaking the exam, the most important takeaway is that you need to review and study more. Insufficient studying will cost time and money, because you will have to retake the exam. 

The CPA exam is hard on purpose. You need to be adequately prepared to take it until you pass.

Enjoy the experience of studying

The concepts you are learning as you study the CPA exam will be part of your career as an accountant. Learning this depth of information gives you a great foundation for the challenges of this field. 

It’s important that your season of studying, while difficult, isn’t excruciating. You will modify your lifestyle and make some sacrifices. 

However, you still need an intact support system and a healthy life. Find a path of study and a timeline that best contributes to your overall well-being, while still allowing you to achieve your goals.

Attend and pass the CPA exam

attend and pass the exam

The CPA exam will consist of multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. You will take each of the four sections separately. The test is difficult and will take four hours per section. 

The exam sections are broken down into smaller testlets. You may take three optional 15-minute breaks between the first and second multiple-choice testlets and the second task-based simulation testlet. During these optional breaks, the test timer is not paused. After the first task-based simulation testlet, there will be a standardized break in which your timer is paused.

Once you have taken the CPA exam, there could be a short or long delay to receive results. Here are the specifics.

The four sections

The CPA exam covers four areas of knowledge. These four sections are:

  1. Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  2. Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  3. Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  4. Regulation (REG)

Types of exam questions

There will be types of questions on the exam:

  1. Multiple-choice questions
  2. Task-based simulations

Multiple choice questions are straightforward in structure but can be complex. Task-based simulations will require applied knowledge. The only additional type of test question will be present in the Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) test, which includes written communication tasks.

Minimum score to pass

The CPA exam is scored from 0-99. You must score a 75 or higher to pass each section. Tests are calculated as a weighted combination of the multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations and—for BEC only—written tasks.

Pass the AICPA ethics exam

pass the AICPA ethics exam

Some states require CPA candidates to also pass an ethics exam. This exam tests candidates on the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct and Accounting Rules. 

The test consists of scenarios in which the test taker must answer according to those standards and rules. The test has 40 multiple-choice questions. It is an open book test, and you have three tries to get a score of 90 or higher.

The ethics exam is self-study. Each state may provide study materials. The state boards of accountancy that require this exam find it important to evaluate a candidate’s character and measure whether they will uphold the right standards in their accounting practice.

Fulfill your work experience requirement

fulfill your work experience requirement

After you have passed your CPA exams, you can throw a party! However, your journey is not over yet. Qualifying for a CPA certificate and license is necessary if you want to practice accounting. 

To do this, your state or jurisdiction will have standards you must meet. For most states, these requirements are in place so that CPA candidates have to practice their knowledge in a workplace environment. This could mean a year of work experience that meets the state criteria, including verification by a supervisor. 

In some states, you can begin this experience at an apprenticeship or internship before your exam and cumulatively gain the right amount of work time to qualify for licensing. You will want to review your state requirements to understand what next steps you will take after you have passed the CPA exam.

Pay your CPA license fees

pay your cpa license fees

Another step that you will have to take to obtain and maintain a CPA practice is to pay licensing fees. These also vary by state. Licenses only last for a specific amount of time (typically a year or two) and have to be renewed. 

Some licensing is subject to qualifying continuing education credits or other criteria. This ensures that everyone who practices accounting as a CPA retains knowledge and expertise in the field.

Become a CPA

Becoming a CPA is a lifetime achievement. While there are many steps to take, the payoff can be a fulfilling, esteemed career. 

Start by making sure you meet the requirements. And if you’re ready to start studying, let us help you choose the best CPA review course to make sure you are ready for exam day.

FAQs

become a cpa faqs

Learning how to become a CPA is vital to taking the right steps at the right time. Here are some additional answers to questions you may have about the process.

How can I become a CPA without an accounting degree?

In most states, CPA requirements include a minimum of a four-year bachelor’s degree. In some states, the hour requirement of 150 or more could mean graduate education as well. However, there are varying rules for this. 

For instance, some states will allow CPA candidates to take the CPA exam if they have apprenticed with a licensed accountant for a certain number of years. This work experience can compensate for a lack of formal education. 

Additionally, some college students don’t pursue a degree in accounting or related fields and may still want to become a CPA. In the event of a mid-career change or other life circumstances, some states will allow people without college level accounting education to sit for the CPA exam. 

As in all of these scenarios, the standards vary by state. You can find the official AICPA requirements online here.

What is the fastest way to become a CPA?

Becoming a CPA can be accelerated by taking the right steps from the start. First, you should be familiar with all of the regulations your state has for requirements. This will include the education you need in terms of hours and any other work-related requirements. Once you know you are eligible, the fastest way to become a CPA is to find a rock-solid CPA exam review.

To become a CPA as quickly as possible, you need the right study tools. This reduces hang-ups by speeding up your study plans while effectively preparing you for an exam that you can pass the first time.

How many years does it take to become a certified public accountant?

The timeline for becoming a CPA could change depending on your state requirements. In many states, you will first have to earn a bachelor’s and maybe even a master’s degree. Then, you will have to study for and take the CPA exam, which could take several months. Once you register, you have 18 months to pass all four parts of the exam. 

After you’ve passed the CPA exam, your state board of accountancy will uphold a work experience requirement. This could be anywhere from a few months to two years of accounting or auditing work. 

In some states, you can complete this requirement before you sit for the CPA exam. In others, you can only complete it after you have passed the test. In all, there are several different ways to achieve your goal of becoming a CPA but it will take time and effort. 

If you pass the CPA exam the first time, your timeline could look like this:

  • 4 years: undergraduate degree
  • 1 year: additional degree study or coursework
  • 6-8 months: CPA exam prep, study, application and taking the test
  • 1 year: work requirement

All in all, it could take you 5-6 years to become a CPA.

Who is eligible for the CPA exam?

Eligibility for the CPA exam varies based on the standards of each state board of accountancy. Most typically, you are eligible for the CPA exam if you:

  • Fulfill the education requirements, which may include a bachelor’s or even master’s degree
  • Submit an application and are approved
  • Fulfill any additional work requirements

In addition to the CPA exam, your state may also require you to take an ethics exam.

Some requirements that vary significantly depending on the state in which you want to practice are:

  1. Whether or not you are an American citizen
  2. Whether or not you currently live in the U.S.

The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy provides a quiz that will help determine your eligibility.

How do I start a career in public accounting?

Your career in accounting begins with meeting the education or experience requirements, then successfully passing the CPA exam.

The CPA exam consists of four parts. You must receive a score of 75 or higher to pass each part. It is a rigorous test, so the best way to get started in your accounting career is to confirm that you are eligible and begin a focused season of study to prepare. 

Once you have passed the CPA exam, you will have to follow your state board of accountancy guidelines for work requirements before you can become a licensed CPA.

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