Enrolled agent vs CPA: What's the difference?

7 min read
Enrolled agent vs CPA two women in business meeting

 CPAs have a well-earned reputation for being experts in accounting, compliance and finance management. But they’re not the only ones who can help people make sense of tax issues and concerns. If you’re considering a career focused on assisting clients with tax-related issues, you may be weighing your options between enrolled agent vs CPA. 

But how does the enrolled agent (EA) role stack up against being a CPA? We compare how they differ and where they overlap so that you can feel confident and informed when planning your career. 

Enrolled Agent vs CPA: What are they? 

Before we dive into the details, let’s discuss the basics between an EA vs CPA. 

A certified public accountant (CPA) is a tax professional who has met state licensing, education and training requirements that allow them to practice across private and public industries organizations. 

An EA is a tax specialist authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury to represent all taxpayers before the IRS. Their sole focus is being the go-to expert on tax laws to help clients navigate their cases with the IRS, like, for example, settling tax debt. 

How are the roles similar? 

Both CPAs and EAs have comprehensive knowledge of the United States tax codes and can use their knowledge to represent their clients in audits, appeals and other matters with the IRS. Also, those with either the CPA license or their EA certification must adhere to strict ethical guidelines and requirements, and complete set amounts of continued public education (CPE) during specified time periods to maintain their credential. 

How do they differ? 

CPAs have a broader knowledge base in all facets of accounting while EAs only focus on tax. Not only is this reflected in their background, even their credentials limit their scope. CPAs are granted unlimited representation rights to assist clients in tax-related matters as well as with audits, risk assessment, business valuation and financial planning. However, CPAs are only allowed to practice in the state where their current license is held except for states that accept CPA mobility for limited practice. 

EAs have a national credential that gives them unlimited practice rights¹ to represent any taxpayer for any tax case across all IRS jurisdictions. Simply put, EAs can do all the things that CPAs can do when it comes to tax. But that’s where their overlap ends. 

Unlike CPAs, EAs can’t certify financial statements and provide public accounting outside of tax, which limits their ability to work in a broader capacity. For example, only a CPA can address a case or scenario with broader financial scope, such as auditing financial statements for the shareholders or reporting information to the SEC, as it is outside an EA’s scope of experience and certification.

EA vs CPA: The requirements

The enrolled agent vs CPA journey both require relevent work experience, passing an exam and fulfilling continued professional education (CPE) requirements. Where they vary is in the time nad effort needed to cross their respective finish lines. 

EducationNoneAt least a bachelor's degree with 150 post-secondary college semester hours (Details vary by state)
ExperienceTwo years of experience in tax compliance and lawAt least one year of relevant, full-time work experience (or the part-time equivalent)

Special Enrollment Exam (SEE)

  • Three sections, each 3.5 hours
  • Only focused on tax-related issues
  • All multiple-choice questions
  • Average study time is 150 to 200 hours2

Certified Public Accountant Exam

  • Four sections - three Core sections that all candidates must pass and one Discipline section out of three options. 
  • Sections focus on tax, financial analysis and reporting, audit and attestation, and other matters relevant to an accountant
  • Multiple-choice questions and completing task-based simulations 
  • Average study time 320 to 420 hours
CPE72 hours every three year reporting periodVaries by state, but most require an average of 40 hours per year

Which career path is right for you?

As the table shows, when weighing your options between EA vs CPA, it is more difficult to obtain a CPA license over an EA credential, but you may find the benefits a CPA license offers is worth the effort.

If EAs and CPAs are nearly interchangeable for tax work, how can you tell if you’re better suited for one over the other? 


EAs stay in tax and primarily deal with collections, appeals, bookkeeping and tax prep for individuals. So if you’re passionate about tax and aren’t interested in auditing or financial reporting, becoming an EA may be a good fit. 

If you want to take it a step further, you can take the Non-Attorney Exam, which would authorize you to represent clients in Tax Court. In this path, you can work at any company or industry and expect to make an average salary of $68,000 - $125,000³. 


Variety and scope are the name of the game for CPAs. Depending on your role, tax may only be one part of what you do. With a license to work on any area of accounting, you’ll have the flexibility to work anywhere that needs strategic financial management. Also, the average CPA salary earns between $60,874 - $150,612. For those with greater professional ambitions, being a CPA is the jumping block to leadership and executive roles. 

Should you choose both CPA licensure and EA credentials? 

Having both your CPA license and your EA credential can improve your career trajectory and help you better serve your clients. However, if you currently meet the EA requirements, it may benefit you to continue on this path before working on your CPA license.

 Look at it this way: the SEE is heavily focused on the United States tax code and will have significant overlap with the Taxation and Regulation (REG) section of the CPA Exam. If you meet the requirements to be an EA, minus passing the SEE, this is the quicker path to starting a career in tax accounting. 

Alternatively, if you already fulfilled your state’s CPA education and work experience requirements, it may make more sense to see it through to CPA licensure because the expertise afforded by CPA licensure would encompass EA proficiency and give you the latitude to practice more comprehensive public accounting. 

CPA licensure makes it easier for you to change gears across industries, niches and responsibilities due to your wider skillset and knowledge. As an EA, you’ll focus on deepening your tax accounting and IRS-related acumen for as long as you’re in the profession. 

Take the first step toward becoming a CPA

Becoming a CPA is challenging, but earning your license can offer career-long benefits, including more engaging work and a higher earning potential. Even though it is a difficult path, you don’t need to do this alone.

Becker’s CPA Exam review course offers comprehensive knowledge and resources taught by our team of experienced National Instructors to help you pass the exam and earn your CPA license. Regardless of your learning needs, we go beyond the CPA Exam textbooks and offer the materials you need to succeed, including:

  • LiveOnline virtual classes for better engagement and accountability
  • One-on-one tutoring to help you tackle those difficult topics
  • 10-20 minute-long lecture videos to keep you focused and engaged
  • Success coaching and unlimited academic support so you have the support you need to move forward

Knowing all of your options--and what it takes to reach your professional goals--is the first step in feeling confident about your EA vs CPA decision. Prepare smarter, not harder with our CPA Exam review


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