CIA vs CPA | Which is Better for Your Career, Salary, and Wallet?

Updated:May 20, 2019
Kenneth W. Boyd


Both the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) are credentials that you earn by passing an examination. CPAs must be licensed by the state(s) in which they practice, but CIAs do not have to be licensed. If you become a CIA then your focus will be on overseeing a company’s internal financial processes to ensure compliance or flag deficiencies.

CPAs are also trained in auditing and can perform the same functions as the CIA; however, the CIA has a more micro skill set. One big difference when comparing CIA vs CPA is that the CPA credential is recognized in the U.S., whereas the CIA is an international designation.

Let’s look at the differences of each designation and see which one is right for you.

What is the difference between CIA vs CPA?

What is a CPA?

The CPA exam is administered by the AICPA and consists of 4 parts: Accounting and Auditing, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting, Reporting, and Regulation. The CIA exam is administered by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and consists of 3 parts: Business Knowledge for Internal Auditing, Practice of Internal Auditing and Essentials of Internal Auditing.

The educational requirements are 150 hours of undergraduate study for the CPA and a 4-year bachelor’s degree for the CIA. However, a combination of education and work experience is also acceptable for CIA eligibility. You can have 2 years of post-graduate education and 5 years of related work experience or 7 years of experience as an internal auditor.

What is a CIA (Certified Internal Auditor)?

Some states require you to have a set number of years of work experience under the direct supervision of a CPA (typically 2), whereas, for the CIA, you must obtain a minimum of 2 years of auditing-related work experience. If you earn a master’s degree, then that knocks off a year of the work experience requirement, so you are looking at only 1 year. Lastly, if you are a CIA candidate, you must provide a letter of character reference signed by an auditing practitioner (typically, your supervisor.)

CIA vs CPA Career Path Differences

CPAs are trained to perform audits which is a service offered by major accounting and consulting firms. Not-for-profit auditing is another specialty that a CPA can perform as well as working as a government auditor. CIAs can also work for the government as well as in industry and some common job titles include audit manager, internal auditor or compliance manager. As the name infers, CIAs work internally – as the employee of an organization.

While a CPA can be employed by a company in an auditor role, it is more common for them to come into a company from the outside (external) to perform auditing functions.

CIA vs CPA Time Requirement Differences

Becoming a CPA vs CIA requires a significant investment of time (and money.) Becoming a CPA can take about 8 ½ years. You will spend around 5 years getting your bachelor’s and/or master’s degree to fulfill the 150 credit hour requirement. If your state requires work experience, then add another 2 years. The AICPA allows 18 months to pass the CPA exam. (Count on it because the CPA exam has a very low pass rate!) That adds up to 8 ½ years.

The time required to become a Certified Internal Auditor varies significantly, based on the many options for meeting the education/work experience requirements. To apply a scenario more equivalent to the CPA, you will need 4 years in college to earn your undergraduate degree. Then you will need 2 years of approved work experience, which brings the total to 6 years. IIA allows 4 years to pass the exam (which also has a very low pass rate), so you could be looking at 10 years to become certified. (It will probably take you much less time than our example!)

CIA vs CPA Cost of Certification

First and foremost, where you do your undergraduate work is going to affect the bottom line as well as if you go on to get your master’s degree. You may also choose to purchase study materials for both exams, which can be expensive – ranging in the low 4-figures. (You can also find free resources online via blogs, study communities, and YouTube videos.) You sit for your CPA in the state where you plan to work and be licensed. The costs per section vary widely from state-to-state. There is a fee for each section as well as a registration fee. After that, you will have to pay for your license, which averages around $150. You will have to take CE (continuing education) courses every year to maintain licensure. The CE requirements will be determined by the state, but an example would be 120 hours in 3 years. Your employer might pay for your CE.

The same applies for Certified Internal Auditor certification regarding costs based on undergraduate/graduate-level education as well as CIA exam study materials. Courses vary in cost depending on your need; however, most courses are around $400. You receive a significant break (about 30%) on the CIA exam fees if you are a member of the IIA. Individual membership in the IIA is $250 per year but the annual dues are based on what type of profession you work in (e.g. there is a reduced government rate.) Your organization may be a member of the IIA, so in that case, you are covered! The cost of the exam in the U.S. for an IIA member is as follows: Application fee ($115), Part 1 ($280), Part 2 ($230) and Part 3 ($230.) This brings the total cost to $1,105. If you are a CIA you will also have to meet CE requirements of 40 hours per year to maintain certification. Again, CE reimbursement might be an employee benefit where you work.

CPA and CIA Salaries

CPAs earn slightly more than CIAs but it depends on the CIA’s job title. As in any case, your geographic, title and years of experience will determine your salary. The median salary for a CPA is $62,123 and $59,677 for an internal auditor. Career growth is optimistic – projected to increase – in the foreseeable future for both professionals.

Recent financial scandals (of epic proportion!) that generated worldwide attention has heightened demand for tightened accountability and increased scrutiny.

CIA or CPA, Why not have Both?

You can. Since a CPA is qualified to perform auditing functions, there really is no need to get a CIA certificate. However, if you are a CIA, a CPA credential can be beneficial when seeking promotions or changing careers.

Certified Public Accountant vs Certified Internal Auditor – Which Certification is Better?

It all depends on what you want to do. The CIA certification is easier to obtain than the CPA in that the exam is focused on 1 major aspect of accounting, whereas the CPA exam is based on 4. If you enjoy detail work and “playing detective,” the CIA certification would work out well for you.

On the other hand, a CPA can also do auditing work but has more career choices in the areas of taxes and reporting. Thus, that credential is more versatile.

If you prefer auditing, tax, reporting, and regulation, then the CPA route would be better. If you are looking to become a CPA, you should start by researching what review course you should use to study for the exam. This is the first big step!

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.