CPA certification vs CPA licensure: What’s the difference?

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If you’re just starting your CPA journey, you may be wondering which is more useful: the CPA certificate vs CPA license. While the two terms sound similar, CPA certification and CPA licensure are two very different things. In brief, earning your CPA certificate just means fulfilling the requirements to sit for the CPA license test, better known as the CPA Exam—and then passing it. In order to meet CPA certification requirements, you must meet the CPA Exam requirements set by your state. Earning your CPA license is a longer process that only begins with CPA certification. Each state has its own list of CPA license requirements, including passing the CPA Exam, completing a certain amount of work experience, earning CPE credit to maintain licensure, and more.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at each of these terms and the requirements they entail, discuss why you should continue working toward earning your CPA license vs certificate and show how Becker can help you earn and keep your CPA license with our resources.

What is CPA certification?

Is the CPA a certification? Sort of, but not completely. As we mentioned before, earning a CPA certificate is one of the first steps in earning full CPA licensure. To complete the CPA certification program, you only need to fulfill the requirements to sit for the CPA Exam—and then pass it. All 50 states require a bachelor’s degree with at least 150 credit hours of coursework to sit for the CPA Exam. Some states will let you sit for the CPA Exam with 120 hours of study, though you still must complete 150 hours before you can apply for a license (these are called two-tier states). Minnesota, for example, allows provisional approval to take the exam if you have 120 credit hours or are within 90 days of meeting this threshold.

The states also specify how many hours of accounting-specific studies you need as part of their CPA Exam requirements. Illinois, for example, requires 30 hours in accounting-related subjects, including courses in auditing, financial accounting, managerial, and taxes. Other states, such as Maine and California, have more detailed accounting coursework requirements, including minimum total hours in upper-level accounting and business courses. There are no work experience or continuing education requirements for earning your CPA certification. 

Accountants who have earned their CPA certificate are very limited in what they can do. They can’t own or be a partner in a public accounting firm. They can’t sign audit reports or tax returns, and they can’t refer to themselves as “CPAs” on any official or legal report. 

Some states will allow you to use the title “CPA” after your name on unofficial documents, like your resume, while others won’t let you use it anywhere. Finally, you’ll have to pay a small fee to renew your CPA certification each year.

What is the difference between a CPA license and a CPA certificate?

So, what is CPA certification vs a CPA license? To earn your CPA license, you’ll need to first earn your CPA certificate—meaning you’ve sat for and passed the CPA Exam—and then fulfill various additional requirements which vary by state.

Most states require you to complete 1-2 years of relevant work experience after earning your CPA certificate, plus at least 40 hours of continuing education per year.  Some states also require you to pass an ethics exam.

Upon earning your CPA license, you gain all the rights and benefits of being a CPA. You can sign audit reports and tax documents, own and operate a CPA firm, and use the title of CPA in any setting. CPA license renewal requirements include annual fees, with the exact amount varying by state, and continuing professional education

Why should I get my CPA license?

Earning your CPA certification is a long, laborious process. As such, it’s tempting to stop there and not fulfill the additional requirements for CPA licensure. 

But there really isn’t a lot you can do with just a CPA certificate. The CPA license carries a degree of prestige and respect far beyond CPA certification. Earning your CPA license shows that you are committed to the profession and are ready to take on serious and important work. It provides a great deal of career security, as CPAs are currently in high demand, and that trend is expected to continue.  

How can Becker help me earn (and keep) my CPA license?

As the leader in CPA prep, Becker can help you through each step of the CPA licensure process. With Becker, you can work to earn your CPA license, or CPA certification, online. We offer cutting-edge technology and world-class support to help you prepare for and pass the CPA Exam. And you can use our online courses and flexible learning formats—written and taught by industry veterans—to complete your CPE requirements.

Whatever your CPA license needs are, Becker is here to help. That’s why more than 2,900 of the top accounting firms, corporations, alliances, government agencies, and universities choose Becker as their trusted partner for CPA and CPE courses.

Get started now by reading this guide for becoming a CPA, reviewing your state’s CPA licensure requirements and browsing Becker’s world-class CPA Review materials.

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