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

best-accounting-certificationsThere are a ton of different accounting certifications that accountants can use to enhance their careers, achieve promotions, and get pay raises.

Each of these of these accounting designations are slightly different and have a different career focus. So depending on what you want your career to look like, some of these might be right for you and others won’t be a good fit. Likewise, you might find that it’s advantageous to have more than one of these credentials behind your name.

Here’s a list of the most popular accounting certifications:

Let’s talk about a few of these and see which one is right for you.


Top Accounting Certifications

First, let’s look at an overview of all the main certifications and point of a few of their differences. Here’s a chart with the examination requirements and qualifications needed for each.

 CPACFACMAEACIA
Bachelor DegreeYesNoYesNoNo
Accounting Courses RequiredYesNoNoNoNo
Exam Dates per Year4 windows
(9 months)
1-2 times
per year
4 windows
(6 months)
Year roundYear round
Exam Length16 hours18 hours8 hours12 hours6.5 hours
Number of Exams43233
Estimated Costs$1,500$3,750$1,750$1,500$1,500

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The Certified Public Accountant credential is the oldest and most respected accounting designation in the profession. CPAs are known and respected across all industries because the CPA license is the most popular and useful certification in the accounting industry. You can think of this like the gold standard. Everyone knows what it is and everyone respects it. This is the mother of all certifications. It also has very unique capabilities.

Unlike other certifications, CPAs are the only accountants who are licensed by state governments and allowed to write audit reports and give opinions on publicly traded company financials. CPAs can also sign tax returns as paid preparers and represent clients in front of the IRS.

CPAs can also do all of the same tasks and jobs that other certifications can do. This of the CPA as a general certification and the others are more specialized certifications. CPAs can do it all.

To become a CPA, you will have to take and pass all four parts of the AICPA uniform CPA exam along with fulfilling the education and work experience requirements of your state.


Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) Designation

The Certified Financial Analyst designation is meant to train you and prepare you for a career in the finance and investment world. Although it has applications beyond that like in company management, most CFAs are finance professionals working on Wall Street or for a hedge fund / investment fund.

The CFA certification is not as popular in industry as the CPA is in the United States, but in Europe and China this designation is much more popular. It helps train people to think analytically about finance, investing, and how businesses operate. This makes CFAs great controllers and CFOs.

The CFA exam is administered by the CFA Institute. The exam process is much longer than the CPA exam because it is only tested one to two times each year depending on the level you are sitting for. The total exam time is also longer and costs more than the CPA exam.

This is a good certification for you if you are looking to get into the world of finance and investing. If you want to do tax preparation or auditing, this isn’t the certification for you. You’d be better off with a CPA.


Certified Management Accountant (CMA) Certification

The Certified Management Accountant designation specializes in company accounting management. This is a topic that the CPA exam doesn’t really even cover. Thus, it makes these candidates great for internal management and executive level roles in companies. For example, a CMA makes a great COO or CFO.

This certification is not that great for public accounting, however. It doesn’t train or certify you to perform audit procedures, write reports, or do any type of tax work. It’s strictly focused on management. Thus, if you wanted to become an executive level officer in a Fortune 500 company, this would be a good certification to get.

The CMA exam is about half the size of the CPA exam and is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). It has very specific and stringent requirements to sit for the exam such as: a bachelor’s degree with proper amounts of educational credits in specific subjects. You will also need to fulfill at least two years of work experience before becoming certified.


Enrolled Agent (EA) Certification

The Enrolled Agent certification is a credential created by the IRS to demonstrate ones knowledge of the US tax code and the ability to apply its concepts. This designation is specifically focused on US taxation of all entity types: individuals and corporations. That being said, this designation does not educate you on any finance, auditing, management, or other business topics. It’s strictly a tax certification. If you have this, you know taxes.

Thus, if you want to go into either tax preparation or internal tax work for a company, this would be a good credential to go after. Keep in mind that all public accounting firms will want you to have your CPA over your EA anyway. If you want to work in public accounting, your CPA is almost a requirement, but enrolled agents do have several privileges that CPAs have long enjoyed. For example, EAs can sign tax returns as paid preparers and represent clients in front of the IRS. This makes the credential somewhat useful in public accounting, but most states have additional laws for public firms that restrict ownership and authority to CPAs.

This credential is ideal for a tax professional who doesn’t meet the educational or experience requirements to sit for the CPA exam. It allows them to have many of the same rights as CPAs without the certification.

If you want to become an EA, you will have to take the enrolled agent exam administered by the IRS. The exam consists of three parts and is 12 hours long.


Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Certification

The Certified Internal Auditor designation is strictly for compliance officers and auditors. CIAs typically work for large companies performing audit procedures and helping independent auditors do their jobs.

This certification requires completing the three sections of the CIA exam totaling 6.5 hours of testing. If you don’t want to continue a career in auditing, this certification isn’t for you.


Common Accounting Certification Questions

Which Accounting Certification is Easiest To Obtain?

All of these certifications are difficult to obtain. All of them have lengthy exams and qualifications that must be met in order to become certified.

That being said, the one with the shortest exam and least amount of requirements is the CIA designation. This is also the most limited accounting credential.


Which Accounting Certification is Hardest To Obtain?

There is a lot of speculation about which accounting certification is the most difficult. I think it is tied between the CPA and CFA. Both have strict requirements to sit of the exam and both have extremely difficult exams.

These two credentials are also the most respected and most useful credentials on the list.


Should I Get Two Accounting Certifications?

This is a common question for many accounting professionals. Guess what? It depends. 🙂 It depends on your career path and your specialization. For example, if you have your CPA license and you want to get into finance and investing more, a CFA designation is a logical choice. Although, you don’t need it, it will help your career.

If you aren’t planning on specializing in any particular area, I would suggest just getting your CPA license. This is the most recognized and useful accounting certification. Here is more information about the following combinations:

CPA vs EA – CPA vs CMA – CPA vs CIA


Should I Get an Accounting Certification and an MBA?

Again, getting your MBA depending on your career path and where you want to be in the future. An MBA will help you attain higher management roles in corporate America. It will also cost you a lot of money.

Since most states require at least 150 credit hours to obtain your CPA license, it does make sense get an MBA to fulfill those extra hours. Some employers will also help pay for your graduate tuition. If this is the case, you should definitely get your MBA. If not, you can do without it.

Keep in mind, a CPA-MBA combo is pretty much an unstoppable combination. Here’s more info about the combination of the two: CPA vs MBA


Which Certification is the Best?

Well, there isn’t a best accounting certification. They are all good for different things. The CPA credential is by far the most respected and most widely used certification, so if you are going get just one, I would recommend the CPA.

Now that you’ve made up your mind about if you want to become a CPA, it’s time to start studying. 🙂 Here’s a list of the top review courses that you can use to pass the exam.

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Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.