Best Accounting Certifications: CPA, CFA, CMA, EA, CIA

best-accounting-certificationsChoosing the best accounting certification for your career will open the doors to many opportunities that you wouldn’t have access to. The right accounting credential will propel your career forward and allow you to increase your job performance, professional position, and compensation.

The problem is that there are so many different certifications for accountants that it can be difficult to understand the differences between them and choose which one is right for you and your career.

Many accounting students and accountants starting their careers think that there is only one option and that’s simply not true. Each accounting designation has a slightly different career focus with its own pros and cons.

Let’s walk through each certification and see which one is right for you and your career.

Compare the Top 10 Accountant Certifications

Here is a list of the best accounting certifications that you can get to further your accounting or finance career.

Before we look at each accounting certification overview, let’s look at their similarities and differences. Below is a chart of each certification exam requirements and license qualifications, so you can compare each.

Accounting CertificationsCPACFAEACMACIA
Bachelor's DegreeYesNoNoYesNo
Accounting Course EducationYesNoNoNoNo
Exam Date Each Year4 windows (9 months)1-2 times per yearYear Round4 windows (6 months)Year Round
Exam Legnth16 hours18 hours12 hours8 hours6.5 hours
Number of Exams43323
Estimated Costs$1,500$3,750$1,500$1,750$1,500

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The certified public accountant (CPA) credential is recognized worldwide for its authority and ethical requirements. Unlike other accounting credentials, there is no single body that grants a CPA license. Instead, each state has the authority to set its own requirements and issue CPA licenses. Thus, the qualifications might changed based on where you want to become certified.

The first step to becoming a CPA is to pass the CPA exam. This four-part test is administered by the AICPA and is the same across all states. It takes most CPA candidates 300-400 hours of studying with a CPA review course to pass the CPA exam. Unlike other professional accounting exams, the CPA exam pass rate is quite low at about 50 percent.

After you pass the exam and complete the work experience requirements, you will be able to apply for your CPA license. When you become a CPA, you will be respected for your skills and knowledge in many different areas of accounting, finance, and business.

The CPA designation is not only the most respected accounting credential in the world, it’s also the most versatile. CPAs work in public accounting, industry accounting, and non-profit accounting as tax accountants, auditors, risk assurance advisors and many other positions.

Aside from preparing for many different career paths, the CPA certification also gives you unique legal privileges that other credentials don’t give you the right to perform. For example, only a licensed CPA can audit a public company and write an opinion on its financial statements. CPAs can also prepare tax returns for clients and represent them in front of the IRS or in court cases.

The CPA license is the gold standard in the accounting profession and enables you to work in just about any field. You can think of this designation as a broad credential that covers the entire accounting industry. All other designations are much more limited in nature.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Designation

The chartered financial analyst designation is granted by the CFA Institute to candidates who meet the educational qualifications, work experience requirements, and pass the CFA exam. Unlike the CPA, the CFA is much more narrowly focused on finance and investment analysis.

The process to become a CFA is much longer and, some would say, more difficult. The CFA Institute offers different levels of certification with each level becoming increasing difficult to obtain. In addition, the exams are offered less frequently than the CPA exam, so if you fail one exam, you will have to wait longer to retake it. Not including education, it’s not uncommon for candidates to 5-7 years to become level-3 certified. In comparison, the typical timeframe for CPA certification is 1-3 years.

CFAs typically work for hedge funds or investment firms analyzing market trends, managing portfolios, and researching investments. CFAs also tend to land executive roles in companies like CFO or controller because of their excellent analytical skills.

Thus, if you want to start a career in the finance and investment world, you should pursue the CFA certification.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA) Certification

A certified management accountant is a professional who specializes in operational management and accounting. In other words, they are really good at running companies, streamlining operations, and increasing production and manufacturing efficiencies. That is why so many companies hire CMAs for their CFO and COO executive positions.

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) grants the CMA certification to candidates who have completed the education qualifications, 2-year work experience requirement, and passed the CMA exam. This exam is much shorter than the CPA exam and much more focused.

In this sense, many people think the CMA is a much easier designation to get, but it doesn’t qualify you for as many different professions. For instance, CMAs can’t audit public companies, write the audit report, or represent clients to the IRS.

The CMA credential is designed to train you to become an expert company manager and diagnosis operational problems and fix them. If you want to run a company instead of doing tax returns and audit reports, this is the designation for you!

Enrolled Agent (EA) Credential

An enrolled agent is an expert tax professional who understands the corporate and individual income tax code in the United States and knows how to apply it.

The enrolled agent certification was established by the IRS as an alternative to the CPA designation for candidates who didn’t meet their state board of accountancy requirements to sit for the exam and become certified. For instance, candidates without accounting degrees won’t be able to become a CPA unless they go back to school.

Thus, the IRS created its own certification focused specifically on the tax code enabling EAs to perform many of the same functions as licensed CPAs. For instance, an EA can represent clients in front of the IRS and sign client tax returns as a paid preparer.

Don’t think this is a shortcut to becoming a CPA, though. EAs have many of the same legal benefits with the IRS as CPAs, but they are much more limited in other areas of accounting.

EAs are not allowed to sign audit reports or be a partner in a public accounting firm. If you want to work in public accounting, this isn’t the right certificate for you. Most firms will require that you get your CPA.

On the other hand, if you want to become an expert in the tax code and start a career in income tax compliance, this is the certification for you.

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Certification

The certified internal auditor credential is granted by the Institute of Internal Auditors and shows that you are an expert in auditing procedures, internal controls, internal auditing, and company compliance.

Public companies and larger private companies hire CIAs to help their independent auditors conduct audit procedures, gather information, and generate internal company reports.

In order to become certified, you will need to pass the 6.5-hour 3-section CIA exam and fulfill the educational/work experience requirements.

This certification is narrowly focused on internal auditing and other compliance procedures, so if you are interested in pursuing a career in anything other than that, this might not be right for you.

On the other hand, if you want a career in auditing, it’s definitely worth getting. The IIA states that CIAs make on average $38,000 more annually than their non-certified counterparts. That’s a huge difference and a great career boost!