Best Accounting Certifications


Best Accounting Certifications:

Are you ready to learn more about accounting certifications? We’ve got a bowl of alphabet soup when it comes to finance and accounting certifications, as our options include the CPA, CMA, CIA, and CISA.

If you’re pursuing or maintaining a career in accounting, you’d benefit from an accounting major and getting an accounting certification. But, you need to know: Which one is the best? Does it make sense to get more than one?

I know accounting certifications can be really confusing. So for this reason, I’ve shared my analysis of these top accountant certifications and finance certifications to help you discover which is right for you.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA): Accounting Certification of Choice:

The primary question for the process of choosing an accounting certification should be: Which certification is the most useful?

For most accountants, the answer to that question is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. Consequently, you’re going to hear the CPA certification referenced the most in accounting circles. Let’s explore why.


Most General Accounting Certification

The CPA certification is probably the most widely recognized accounting certification because it is the most general. One of the requirements for earning the CPA is passing the CPA Exam, and the exam content is very broad.

The CPA Exam covers accounting topics such as financial accounting, management accounting, corporate finance, strategic planning, audit, general business, and U.S. taxation. In fact, the CPA Exam covers so much material that it actually consists of 4 different sections and hundreds of questions.

For this reason, the CPA Exam is one of the most challenging accounting certification exams. Surprisingly, this facet of the CPA certification doesn’t detract from its popularity but rather adds to its prestige.


One of the Most Stipulated Accounting Certifications

The additional CPA requirements also contribute to the world-renowned reputation of the CPA certification. In the U.S., the states grant CPA licenses, and the state boards of accountancy oversee this process, which involves establishing the CPA licensure requirements. While the specifics of the CPA requirements vary per state board, the general certification guidelines are the 3 Es:


Examination: All state boards hold that candidates must pass the AICPA’s Uniform CPA Examination.

Education: Almost every state board expects candidates to earn 150 hours of education with an accounting concentration.

Experience: Most state boards require candidates to acquire 1-2 years of professional accounting experience.

Some state boards also make candidates pass a CPA ethics exam (the fourth “E”).

As you can see, the AICPA asks a lot of CPA candidates. The education requirement, in particular, is the highest among all accounting and finance certifications. Such strict requirements reinforce the perspective that earning the CPA certification is a particularly impressive feat that places CPAs in an elite group. But that’s not the only reason the CPA is so popular and prestigious.


Most Regulated and One of the Oldest Accounting Certifications

The CPA certification is the most regulated because the CPA is the only qualification that includes the statutory right to sign audit reports and issue audit opinions.

Clearly, the CPA is the accounting certification of choice, but if you need any more reason to respect it, you should know that it is one of the oldest accounting certifications. The CPA’s long history began in 1896, yet thousands of candidates still sit for the exam every year.

If you’d like to join them so you can earn the most esteemed accounting certification around, contact us today.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA) Certification

Certified Management Accountant certification is almost like a subset of the CPA certification. The CMA certification focuses completely on management accounting, while the CPA only touches on it. Therefore, the CMA certification adds value with its specializations in cost accounting, financial analysis, and strategic planning.

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) administers the U.S. CMA program. Though this program is based in America, it is globally recognized because the CMA is available in 140 countries.


CMA Benefits

The CMA does not benefit public accountants as much as the CPA does. However, if you hope to work in corporate accounting in the future, particularly in Fortune 500 companies or companies with manufacturing facilities requiring cost and inventory management, then the CMA is what you need.

This particular accounting certification can help you land a high-quality job in these industries. The CMA certification lets you engage in both the business management and finance sides of a company. Additionally, the expertise you gain from this vocational flexibility equips you for positions such as CEO, CFO, COO, and Vice President, Finance, among others.



CMA Requirements

A factor that has helped the CMA gain traction in America is the relaxed CMA requirements:


Examination: You have to pass the CMA exam, which has just 2 parts.

Education: You simply need any bachelor’s degree from virtually any university around the world.

Experience: You must acquire two years of relevant accounting experience.

The CMA is considered the gold standard in management accounting. If you know this is the career path you want to take, then learn more about how to become a CMA today. And if you’re ready to get started on the CMA exam, you’ll want to check out the best CMA review courses and CMA review discounts.


Both the CMA and the CPA are highly respected in the industry. So, what distinguishes the 2? Well, the biggest difference between the CPA and CMA certification is that the CMA represents expertise in both financial accounting and strategic management. To do so, this certification expands upon basic financial accounting by adding management skills as well.


Furthermore, while exceptions exist, CPAs usually work for public accounting firms, and CMAs work for private companies. So, when choosing your certification, consider the career path you are going to take.


Additionally, the CPA certification process is a bit more intense. For example, the CPA Exam is a longer test that contains 4 sections, while the CMA exam only has 2 parts. However, the CMA exam pass rate currently averages 35%, while the CPA Exam pass rate is about 50%.

And though they differ from state to state, the other CPA requirements are equally involved. Furthermore, the CMA requires 30 hours per year of CPE, and the CPA requires 40 hours per year of CPE.


CMA vs. CPA Costs

And last but not least, when comparing these 2 certifications of accounting, you must also heed their costs. The CPA certification includes a greater range of CPA Exam fees than the CMA certification, but the CMA exam fees are still comparable, as both start at right around $900 for the exams.

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Certification

The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification also supplies you with an accounting specialization. As you can see, the CIA designation is strictly for internal auditors. While internal auditors and compliance professionals have many certification options, the CIA certification is the most relevant. Internal audit is important for all companies, so the CIA will help you find a variety of employment opportunities. However, CIAs most often work for large companies performing audit procedures and helping independent auditors.


CIA Requirements

If the CIA accounting greatly interests you, you can earn the certification by fulfilling the following CIA requirements:


Examination: You have to pass the CIA exam, which features 3 parts (CIA Part 1, CIA Part 2, and CIA Part 3). The format of the CIA exam varies per part; however, each part includes 100-125 multiple-choice questions.

Education: You must have at least an associate’s degree in any discipline from an accredited university. You can get this requirement waived with 7 years of working experience in internal audit.

Experience: You need to accumulate at least 1 year of internal audit experience, depending on your education. If you have an associate’s degree or equivalent, you’ll need 5 years of experience.

While earning the CIA certification is not as challenging as earning certifications like the CPA, CIA accounting is a distinct niche. If you are not interested in internal auditing, don’t get the CIA certification.


On the other hand, if you’re ready to take your internal auditing skills to the next level, then discover how to become a certified internal auditor today. The CIA review market features several course options, so you can find the best CIA review course for you. You can also save on your exam prep with big CIA review discounts.



Again, you must pass an exam to earn both the CPA and the CIA. And both of these exams address auditing. What’s more, both the CPA and the CIA require a significant amount of money and time to acquire. For instance, you will need to invest anywhere from 7-9 years in the process of becoming a CPA and about 6-8 years in the process of becoming a CIA.


However, while these certifications have their similarities, they also have significant differences. For example, while individual states award the CPA license, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) grants the CIA. Likewise, candidates can visit the IIA’s website to complete the CIA exam registration process.


Another source of distinction is the responsibilities of a CIA and CPA. As a CIA, your focus is on overseeing a company’s internal financial processes. You will work to ensure compliance or to flag any deficiencies. However, you will do so internally as the employee of an organization.


Conversely, CPAs can perform the same auditing functions as CIAs, but they usually do so while working for major accounting and consulting firms. So, when you’re a CPA, many different types of businesses and organizations can hire you to do their accounting or auditing. You can also provide auditing services for not-for-profit firms.


Another distinction between the CIA and the CPA is that the CIA is an international designation, so you have a few more opportunities to use the CIA around the world. The U.S. CPA is better for jobs in America. However, some international companies do value the CPA as well. The CIA designation is very popular among internal audit job seekers in the United States, India, the Philippines, and more.

CIA Exam vs CPA Exam

As is the case with the CPA Exam, the CIA exam pass rates are fairly low. So, while the CIA exam has a narrower focus than the CPA Exam, both exams are challenging. Moreover, since the CIA exam has fewer requirements than the CPA Exam does, candidates who take the exam may have less accounting knowledge. Therefore, CIA candidates without a bachelor’s in accounting may find the CIA exam difficulty level higher than candidates with a deep understanding of accounting. The CIA exam passing score is 600, and like the CPA Exam, the score is scaled.


Due to the difficulty levels of the CIA and CPA Exam, candidates often need to retake a part or section that they failed. But in contrast to the CPA Exam, candidates who fail the CIA exam need to wait 90 days before they can sit for that same part again. However, CPA candidates only need to wait until the next testing window to re-take a section. So, for some candidates, the time in between failing a CPA Exam section and retaking it may be less than 20 days.


CIA candidates must complete all 3 exam parts within 4 years; however, some candidates may request a CIA exam extension from the IIA. In contrast, CPA Exam candidates have 18 months to pass the remaining 3 exam sections after they pass their first section.


Finally, candidates typically spend around 400-600 hours studying for the CPA Exam. But, most candidates only study about 200 hours for the CIA exam. The number of topics tested on each exam can explain this study time discrepancy because the CIA syllabus covers less content than the CPA Exam Blueprints.


CIA vs. CPA Costs

Again, when comparing 2 accounting certifications, you must look at the costs. Factors contributing to your certification expenses include the amount of education you need and where you earn it as well as exam fees and study material prices. For both the CPA and the CIA, funding the necessities can cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.


As mentioned, your CPA fees will vary from state to state. But, you can generally expect to pay $100-$200 for the application, a little more than $200 per exam section, and about $150 for the license. You should also prepare to spend about $2,000 on CPA Exam prep.


Alternatively, most CIA review courses start at around $400. And if you or your organization are part of the IIA, you can get a discount on the exam fees to the tune of 30%. So, the cost of the CIA exam for a U.S. IIA member includes the $115 application fee, Part 1 ($280), Part 2 ($230), and Part 3 ($230.) Therefore, your CIA certification total is about $1,105.

Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) Certification

The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification is currently the most recognized designation for information systems (IS) audit control, assurance, and security professionals. Due to a series of financial scandals, the Arthur Anderson fallout, and problems within internal control, the CISA certification has become quite popular. In fact, the number of CISAs has doubled in the last decade.


But the CISA has been around for a while now. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) launched the CISA certification in 1976. ISACA itself began in 1969 to benefit information systems audit, assurance, security, risk, privacy, and governance professionals. ISACA membership has quadrupled in the last 10 years, and the association now has more than 140,000 members in 180 countries. The CISA is one of four certifications the ISACA grants, and more than 27,000 IT professionals take the exam every year.


Becoming a CISA is a good idea for auditors planning to prove their competency in IT auditing and their dedication to the industry. As a very technical and specialized certification, the CISA can help you qualify for exclusive career opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. Of course, one of the biggest draws is the increased salary you can earn as you advance in the industry. Compared to general internal auditors, IT auditors can make $11,000-$21,000 more with each promotion. Such expansive payouts are the result of the high demand for CISAs in the wake of a growing emphasis on internal control.


CISA Requirements

If you’d like to become a CISA as well, you won’t have to do as much as you would to earn some of these other certifications. There are only 2 requirements for securing the CISA:



Examination: You need to pass the CISA exam, which just has one part.

Experience: You must have at least 5 years of experience in information system auditing, control, or security.

IT skills are more important than ever, and with the CISA, you can be invaluable to the information systems industry. Jumpstart your IT auditing career by learning how to become CISA certified today. You can also find CISA discounts to help with your preparation.


Now that you know more about the CIA and the CISA, how do you decide which one is for you? When deciding which certification is better, you do want to consider what you will do with your certification. What career path do you plan to take?


CISA is designed for specialists, whereas the CIA is better for generalists. Understanding your focus before you get started will help you plan which certification is for you. The CISA is recognized globally in the audit and control fields as well as information security systems. Both courses have limitations and qualifications, so choosing the best one requires you to evaluate your needs and future career path.


The CIA is a good option if you want to be an internal auditor but do not have a specific area of specialization. On the other hand, the CISA is the gold standard for IT auditing.


CIA vs. CISA Costs

The CIA costs about $1,500 (sometimes more). CISA costs about $1,000. Training and prep might add to those costs, depending on the books and other materials you may choose.

Which Is the Easiest Accounting Certification to Earn?

Over the years, candidates have asked which the easiest accounting certification is to earn more times than I can count. In truth, the exam difficulty does vary, but I wouldn’t pick an accounting certification based on these criteria. You should instead choose the one that adds the most value to your career.


Try to avoid shortcuts and short-term gains. It’s much better to plan long-term so you can benefit long-term.

Which Is the Hardest Accounting Certification to Get?

Just because an accounting certification has a reputation for being difficult to achieve does not mean that earning it would be an impossible task for you. Rather, if you are intelligent and hard-working, you can get any of these certifications!


That being said, we can see that some of these certifications have very stringent prerequisites, so their reputations may be well-founded. Looking at requirements alone, the CPA and the CFA certifications are the most demanding. However, the CPA and CFA exams usually have higher pass rates than the CIA exam and Part 1 of the CMA exam. Consequently, our perspective on certification difficulty can alter according to the factors we focus on.

How Many Accounting Certifications Do You Need?

The answer really depends on your career path. How you want to specialize is also an aspect of this decision. If you can qualify for it, getting the CPA title is a good idea because the CPA is so prestigious and versatile. Earning one additional title can then help distinguish you even further.


However, I would advise against certain certification combinations. For example, the CMA and CFA lead to completely different career paths. Therefore, pairing these particular certifications wastes money, time, and effort. This matchup also leaves recruiters confused about what you want to do. If you are going to combine certifications, you should be sure they complement one another.


In my opinion, getting a CPA and CFA, CPA and CMA, CPA and CIA, or CFA and CAIA makes more sense.

Should I Get an MBA Instead of or With an Accounting Certification?

This is another big question. Basically, I consider an accounting certification and an advanced degree different enough that you can get both, as they serve distinct purposes. But as always, you’ll find the answer to this question by reflecting on your own career goals and developing your understanding of these choices. To get started on the latter, read my thoughts on the CPA vs Master’s, the CFA vs MBA, and the CMA vs MBA.


When choosing your accounting certification, consider each certification based on your career goals and what you plan to do with it. Ask yourself whether or not this certification will help to further those goals. For example, becoming a CMA may not be the best option when working with small clients. Each designation has its purpose or emphasis and I hope that this guide has helped to clarify these for you and make it easier for you to choose the best certification for your needs and career goals.

Concluding Thoughts about Accounting Certifications

There are numerous accounting certifications you can get as an accounting and finance professional. The ones I’ve listed are the leaders in their respective fields. Consequently, you could pursue tier 2 and tier 3 titles instead, but I think the cost of getting these may exceed the benefits.


But of course, I am always open to new ideas from my readers. You are more than welcome to share your thoughts on accounting certifications in the comments section below.


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