The CPA Requirements

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Education Requirements

Each state in the U.S. has a "state board of accountancy" that is responsible for licensing certified public accountants (CPAs) who practice in that state. Each board issues rules that govern what a person must do in order to become a licensed CPA. While having a 120-credit bachelor's degree in accounting was, at one time, enough to qualify a person to sit for the CPA Exam, most states now require that candidates complete a 150-credit college degree program. Exact rules vary from state to state. You can find your state's requirements with this link: State Boards of Accountancy

In general, state boards require the following:

  • A total of 150 semester credits from a college or university whose accreditation is accepted by the state (Colleges and universities typically offer a curriculum designed to meet the 150-credit requirement.)
  • A minimum of a bachelor's degree
  • A specified number of accounting courses
  • A specified number of business courses

Colleges and universities with quality accounting degree programs will offer both a bachelor's degree in accounting as well as the more ambitious 150-credit degree, the latter one meeting the state's requirements for sitting for the CPA Exam. If you want to become a CPA, you will choose the 150-credit program. Within those 150 credits you will likely also earn a bachelor's degree in accounting.

You should know from the outset that college accounting courses are difficult—they demand an ability to understand and manipulate complex financial concepts. You will be expected to attain above average grades in an environment known for its high grading standards.

Less than half of the students who enroll in a bachelor's degree program in accounting will succeed. The same is true for those who intend to earn the 150-credit degree. Of those students who succeed in qualifying to sit for the CPA Exam, less than half will successfully pass this difficult exam.

Learn more about the difficulty of the CPA Exam

If your goal is to become a CPA, you should prepare early. While still in high school, be sure to enroll in courses that are part of the "college track." Completing one or more of the advanced placement (AP) or post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) courses in high school will give you an advantage.

Meeting the Educational Requirements in Different Ways

Generally, colleges and universities will establish an accounting curriculum that guides students through the entire 150 college credits needed to sit for the CPA Exam. That being said, state boards of accountancy sometimes allow a measure of flexibility. Here are a few examples of people who took a different qualifying route to the CPA Exam:

  • Obtained a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding undergraduate program. The student then attended a prestigious graduate school to earn an MBA degree.
  • Obtained a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding accounting program. The student then attended another exceptional university and earned a graduate degree in taxation.
  • Graduated from college in only four years with the 150-credit degree. This is because the student had a "head start" coming into college due to the AP (or PSEO) credits earned in high school.

Learn more about Choosing a College or University

Passing the CPA Exam

Once a state board of accountancy determines that a candidate has met the requirements for sitting for the CPA Exam, the candidate will face the most difficult part of becoming a certified public accountant—the exam itself.

The CPA Exam is infamous for its low pass rates, and this only serves to re-emphasize our advice that you attend a college or university that has a rigorous accounting program.

See our discussion under Accounting Degrees

As a general rule, you should sit for the CPA Exam as soon as you meet your state's academic requirements. The exam is based on academics, so it's best to take the test while your accounting courses are reasonably fresh in your mind. Recollection of coursework material will be more valuable to you than on-the-job experiences.

We recommend that you sign up for a CPA Exam review course before attempting the CPA Exam. If that is not possible, CPA Exam review materials are available online or in printed books.

Learn more about the CPA Exam

Ethics Exam

After passing the CPA Exam, but before a CPA license is issued, applicants for a CPA license will need to fulfill an ethics requirement, such as completion of an ethics course and/or an ethics exam. Learn your state's requirements regarding ethics at State Boards of Accountancy.

Experience Requirements

The experience requirements for obtaining a CPA license are determined by each state's board of accountancy.

Generally, if someone had successfully passed the CPA Exam the odds were great that the person could easily find a job that provided the required professional accounting experience. However, there are times when economic conditions make it difficult to find an accounting position that provides the required experience.

To learn more about the experience requirements in your state, use the links in the following section.

CPA License Requirements

You must apply for your CPA license through your state's board of accountancy (or its designated licensing agency) and may be required to renew your CPA license annually or biannually.

In order to maintain a CPA license, most state boards of accountancy require CPAs to take a specified number of continuing professional education (CPE) hours within a specified period of time. Boards will state what types of CPEs will meet this requirement.

For more details, check with your State's Board of Accountancy.

Organizations for CPAs

While membership in a state society of CPAs and membership in the American Institute of CPAs may not be a legal requirement, we believe it is a practical requirement for the reasons shown below.

State Societies of CPAs

Most certified public accountants join their state society of CPAs. A state society provides useful benefits:

  • Informs members about current issues within the state.
  • Arranges for continuing professional education seminars on such topics as state taxes, state laws, federal taxes, and technology changes.
  • Publishes monthly bulletins, newsletters, magazines, and email notices covering issues important to its members.
  • Promotes the accounting profession to students and the general public.

American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is a national professional organization of CPAs. Surprisingly, not all CPAs join this organization, even though it offers significant benefits to its members ranging from technical accounting updates to discounts on products and services. The AICPA publishes the monthly magazine Journal of Accountancy, maintains a website with information on current issues, and provides continuing education resources.

CPAs who are members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) are required to take 120 hours of continuing professional education during each 3-year reporting period. CPE requirements for memberships in other CPA societies or institutes can be found using the following link: State Societies of CPAs

Learn more about the AICPA.