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How to Become a CPA: Steps and FAQs

How to Become a CPA: Steps and FAQs

You want to become a CPA but aren’t sure where to start when it comes to education, training, or certifications. This guide helps you take the first step. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a CPA.

Do you consider numbers to be friends? Does business financing fascinate you? Are you already an experienced accountant who wants to advance your career with better job opportunities and more credibility? If so, you may be a perfect candidate for a career as a certified public accountant (CPA). With this certification, you can earn 10% to 15% more than a regular accountant.

This handy guide explains how to become a CPA in an easy-to-read, step-by-step format and lays out the process and requirements. You’ll also learn the benefits of specializing and how to get certified in several different states. Whether you’ve already decided on a CPA career or are still exploring your options, the information below will help you determine if this is the right path for you.

Is becoming a CPA right for me?

If you’re still on the fence about becoming a CPA, here are a few things to consider that could make your decision easier: 

  • Higher-paying jobs at prestigious companies that would otherwise be closed to you
  • Preferential treatment compared to those who aren’t CPAs
  • Greater likelihood of advancement within a company
  • Ability to choose from top jobs in both public and private sectors

Intrigued? Keep reading to learn more about your next steps for how to become a CPA.

How to Become a CPA (Certified Public Accountant): Step-by-Step

If an accounting career interests you, you may be wondering where to begin on the path for how to become a CPA? How long does it take? Below is a detailed breakdown of each step along the way. You’ll find out what degrees you need, how to become a CPA online, exam requirements, and how much work experience is typically required before getting certified. Do you already have a bachelor’s degree that’s not in accounting? In certain states, your work experience will count. Keep reading for all the important details.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

You’ll need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and 120 credits. All states require an additional 30 for a total of 150 credits to become a CPA. 

Many states require a degree in accounting, but there are a handful that don’t require any accounting degree or major. These include Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Alaska. Of course, you’ll need a thorough understanding of accounting principles, so an accounting degree makes sense. As far as the additional 30 credits go, you aren’t required to get a master’s degree but pursuing a master’s is a way to earn the credits, gain more specialization, and prepare for the exam.

The road to becoming a CPA takes about seven years from start to finish. It begins with a four-year bachelor’s degree, after which comes one to two years of work experience. Some states allow you to take the four-part Uniform CPA Exam before completing the work experience and final 30 credits, with the provision that you fulfill all the requirements before certification. You may also need to pass a take-home ethics exam, depending on your jurisdiction. After paying your fees and becoming certified, you’ll need to renew your license every one to two years and continue your education.

Wondering about your options for how to become a CPA online? Thanks to modern technology, some states offer special courses that blend a bachelor’s and master’s program into a five-year online course, an appealing alternative to the traditional route of earning first a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. 

Step 2: Choose a CPA Specialization

Deciding on a specialty as a CPA is a crucial part of the process that can affect your future salary, success, and overall enjoyment of your work. Focusing on one area makes you a specialist in your field, something that many people and businesses prefer. It also guides your education by determining which courses fit your career path. As far as your work experience, choosing a position aligned with your education will give you valuable experience and expertise. Some common areas of specialization include auditing, government, nonprofit, financial planning, tax, assurance, and forensic accounting. 

If your specialization still feels broad, you can narrow your field even further by focusing on clients in a certain location or by providing a specific service to one set of clients (such as healthcare companies). When choosing your specialty, consider what you enjoy learning about and what kind of clients you’re likely to have. What are you interested in? What kind of work could you see yourself doing in five years? Talk to other successful CPAs in your field of interest to see how your work style and personal qualities match up.

As important as a specialty is, you may find it impossible to choose one in the beginning. That’s okay. By being “undeclared,” you have the option to explore multiple fields and then decide later what works best for you. 

Step 3: Complete the Required Amount of Work Experience

As mentioned above, you’ll need a minimum of one to two years (or 2,000 to 4,000 hours) of work experience in addition to a degree to become certified. The amount and type of work experience varies between jurisdictions, so it’s important to find out exactly what’s required in your area. In general, all work must be done under the supervision of or signed off by a licensed CPA.

Positions can be in government, public accounting, or even teaching, depending on state regulations. For example, Colorado requires only 1,800 hours (but no less than one year) of experience. Contrast this with Nevada, which requires two full-time years at a public accounting firm or four full-time years in a government or industry role. 

Some states accept part-time work under a licensed CPA, and internships usually count as work experience. You can speed up the process of becoming a CPA online by using an internship to accumulate hours while earning your degree.

Step 4: Sit for the CPA and Ethics Exams (and Pass)

The Uniform CPA Exam was developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, along with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and individual state boards. This computerized exam takes 16 hours to complete and consists of four parts:

  • Auditing and Attestation 
  • Business Environment and Concepts
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Regulation

Questions are a mixture of multiple choice, essays, and simulations that require real-world problem-solving skills. Although the exam stays the same, the requirements to sit for the exam may vary between jurisdictions. Many people can take the exam with the 120 credits from their bachelor’s degree. Check your eligibility by visiting the NASBA website to verify the education requirements in your jurisdiction. As of January 2023, potential CPAs are required to complete the Uniform CPA Examination Conduct and Non-Disclosure Agreement before taking the exam.

You must achieve a minimum score of 75 on each of the four sections, and you’ll have up to 18 months to do so. Helpful resources include the CPA Exam Blueprints, sample tests, and the CPA Exam Booklet.

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to take an ethics exam that ensures your ability to handle complicated situations involving confidential information. It’s a timed, open-book test that usually requires a minimum grade of 90% to pass. 

Step 5: Apply for CPA Jobs

Now that you’re a CPA, it’s time to find a job in your specialty. You may have to choose between shooting for a position at a large firm, such as one of the Big Four, or opting for a smaller firm that offers better work-life balance. No matter your preference, there are certain steps you’ll need to take to successfully land your dream job.

First, building an online presence is critical, especially on LinkedIn. Recruiters often use LinkedIn to find candidates who may be a good fit for specific companies. Establishing yourself online may also involve reaching out to people at companies you’re interested in to see if they have a few minutes to chat. 

Second, have a professional review your resume so that you’ll look your best on paper. A second set of eyes often catches minor errors that could make the difference in your resume standing out from the rest of the stack. 

Next, prepare for multiple interviews. Depending on the size of the firm, you may have to interview more than once. Interviews can take a more conversational tone or be more structured, so it’s helpful to be comfortable with both formats. Researching the company you’re interviewing at allows you to ask insightful questions and shows your potential employer that you care about benefiting the business. 

CPA Specializations to Consider

Choosing a specialization early on allows you to tailor your education, especially a master’s degree, to your preferred career path. This lays the foundation for becoming an expert in your field and enjoying benefits such as a higher salary and leadership positions. Below, learn about some popular specialties and the requirements for each. Additional specialties include personal financial planning and information management.

How to Become a Government CPA

To become a government CPA, you‘ll need a bachelor’s degree in accounting that includes at least 24 credit hours of accounting and auditing. Many positions require a CPA credential and thorough knowledge of tax preparation, internal auditing, accounting software, and accounting records. Government jobs can be found at the local, state, and federal level but all must adhere to the guidelines set out by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board or the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board.

How to Become a Nonprofit CPA

A CPA for a nonprofit organization ensures that services don’t exceed revenue by either advising or actively participating in resolving tax issues, handling payroll, preparing financial statements, and performing internal audits. Most of these tasks require one to three years of experience.

CPAs with more experience can take on more responsibility, such as running internal systems tests, and may eventually move up in the organization to Chief Financial Officer. 

How to Become a Tax CPA

To specialize in tax preparation and filing, a CPA must adhere to ethical standards, continue their education, and, above all, understand the generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP). Following GAAP ensures consistent, accurate reporting of financial information. Tax CPAs typically have unlimited representation rights, meaning that they can represent their clients in all matters pertaining to audits, payments, and appeals. Those who want to pursue a career in taxes must understand local, state, and federal tax regulations as well as be comfortable using accounting software such as Microsoft Excel and QuickBooks.

How to Become an Auditor

An auditor examines financial documents to check for fraud and to ensure that documents align with state and federal regulations. This position requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in accounting, but being a CPA greatly improves your chances of getting a job in this field.

Although not necessary, additional certifications from professional organizations can enhance your credibility by validating your competence in a specialized field such as auditing.

How to Become a Forensics and Valuation CPA

A forensics CPA examines personal and business transactions for signs of tax fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, and identity theft and may also involve family disputes and insurance claims. To get started in this specialty, you’ll want to look for entry-level positions such as auditor, staff accountant, or financial analyst.

With experience, you may be able to start investigating fraud or working on compliance-related tasks within your company. If you know early on that forensics will be your specialty, you can tailor your education by including courses on criminal justice and forensic accounting.

State-Specific CPA Requirements

When learning how to become a CPA, and especially how to become a CPA online, you’ll find that states have similar requirements but each has variations on how to fulfill them. Some states require more work experience than others or require certain types of work experience. Others allow prospective CPAs to earn their certification without an accounting degree. Test fees and application requirements also vary between jurisdictions. Below is a breakdown of the requirements for five states that illustrate the different possibilities.

How to Become a CPA in California

To become a CPA in California, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and a total of 150 semester units. These must include 24 units in accounting subjects, 24 units in business, 20 units of accounting study, and 10 units of ethics study.

Before getting certified, you must have at least 12 months of verified work experience, pass the Uniform CPA exam in California, pass the Professional Ethics for CPAs exam, undergo a criminal background check, and provide a valid Social Security number.

How to Become a CPA in Texas

CPA requirements in Texas say that you must complete a minimum of 150 semester hours of coursework at an accredited university that includes at least 27 semester hours of upper-level accounting and three semester hours of an approved ethics course.

Texas requires one year of full-time work experience or two consecutive years of part-time work (20 hours per week). After passing the CPA exam and the open-book test on the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct, you can apply for your certification, complete the Oath of Office, undergo a background check, and complete a four-credit ethics course that must be retaken every other year.

How to Become a CPA in New York

In New York, you will need to complete 150 credit hours from an accredited college to apply for certification. However you can take the CPA exam with only 120 credit hours if your transcripts show courses completed in financial accounting, cost accounting, taxation, and auditing and attestation. Coursework must include 33 hours of accounting and 36 hours of general business.

After passing the Uniform CPA exam, you must have at least one year of full-time work experience under a licensed CPA or two years of part-time work before applying for certification.

How to Become a CPA in Florida

Becoming a CPA in Florida involves accruing 150 semester hours that include 30 hours of upper-division accounting and 36 hours of upper-division business. Three of those business hours must be on business law.

You may take the Uniform CPA exam after completing 120 credit hours by submitting your transcripts and a $50 fee. Florida requires one year of work verified by a licensed CPA; this can begin after finishing 120 credit hours. Your application for certification must be submitted within three years of passing the CPA exam.

How to Become a CPA in North Carolina

North Carolina requires you to complete 150 semester hours at an accredited college, which can be accomplished by taking separate bachelor’s and master’s courses or through a blended, five-year course. These must include 30 hours in undergraduate accounting courses or 20 in graduate-level accounting or an equivalent combination. You must also complete 24 semester hours of business coursework. You can sit for the Uniform CPA exam after completing 120 semester hours.

The required work experience can be fulfilled by one year of either public or private accounting practice under the supervision of a licensed CPA or four years of full-time teaching of accounting at an accredited university.