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

7 min read
person studying on laptop and writing in notebook

If you’re just starting your CPA journey, maybe you've heard of the CPA certification and the CPA license. But what is the difference between them? Can the terms be used interchangeably? And what do you really need to be successful in a career in public accounting? 

While the two may seem similar, CPA certification and CPA licensure are very different things. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at each of these terms and the requirements they entail, discuss why earning your CPA licensure is worth the extra effort, and help you get on track to achieve your career goals. 

What is the CPA certification? 

The CPA certification is a first step in advancing your career in public accounting, because it sets you on the path toward earning your CPA license and becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). 

Earning a CPA certificate entails fulfilling your state's requirements to sit for—and then pass—the CPA Exam.

CPA certificate requirements 

To complete your CPA certification, you need to fulfill the requirements to sit for the CPA Exam, take the CPA Exam, and then pass it. 

While all states require that you pass the CPA Exam to become a CPA, only "two-tier" states officially name and issue CPA certification before licensure. "Two-tier" simply means that there are two phases to becoming a CPA: 

  1. Sit for and pass the CPA Exam to earn your CPA certification.
  2. Gain additional experience and/or education, then apply for and receive your CPA license. 

Nebraska, Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma are the only two-tier states. The others do not separate the process into two phases. 

All 50 states require a bachelor’s degree and specific coursework to sit for the CPA Exam. However, the exact number of credit hours and accounting courses may vary, and even single-tier states set different requirements for the CPA certification vs CPA license. 

For example, to sit for the CPA Exam in Pennsylvania, you need:

  • 120 semester hours (180 quarter hours) of coursework 
  • 24 hours (36 quarter hours) in accounting or related subjects

Licensure, on the other hand, requires:

  • 150 semester hours (225 quarter hours) of coursework  
  • 24 hours of accounting-related courses 
  • 12 additional credit hours in accounting, tax, or auditing courses  

Although there are clearly very specific education requirements to earn your CPA certification, there are no experience nor continuing education requirements at this stage. 

Since each state determines its own requirements for CPA certification and licensure, it can be tricky to keep up with the nuanced differences. It's extremely important to know your state's CPA requirements as you begin working to earn your license. 

CPA certificate limitations 

It’s important to note that becoming a practicing CPA requires licensure, not a certification. Accountants who have passed the CPA Exam and earned their CPA certificate are on the right path, but still very limited in what they can do. 

  1. They can’t own or be a partner in a public accounting firm. 
  2. They can’t sign audit reports, certify financial statements, or represent clients before the IRS. 
  3. 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 don't allow you to use it anywhere. 

What is the CPA license? 

Upon meeting your state's requirements and earning your CPA license, you gain all the rights and benefits of being an official Certified Public Accountant (CPA). 

The CPA license is needed to practice as a titled CPA and requires passing the CPA Exam, as well as meeting additional education, experience, ethics, and other state-specific requirements.  

CPA license requirements 

To earn your CPA license, you’ll need to first sit for and pass the CPA Exam (earning your CPA certificate in two-tier states), and then fulfill various additional requirements which vary by state.

Most states require that you complete one to two years of relevant work experience before licensure. Some states also require that you pass an ethics exam, prove residency, or other specific obligations. 

Steps to Earn Your CPA License
1.Meet your state's education requirements to sit for the CPA Exam. 
2.Take and pass all 4 sections of the CPA Exam. 

— CPA Certification — 

3.Meet additional, state-specific education requirements. 
4.Meet state-specific experience requirements. 
5.Meet state-specific ethics requirements (if applicable). 
6.Meet state-specific residency requirements (if applicable). 
7.Apply for licensure. 

You also must maintain your CPA license with yearly continuing professional education (CPE) requirements. 

Be sure to review your state’s requirements for earning and maintaining licensure. 

CPA license benefits 

Earning your CPA license is a long, laborious process, which may seem intimidating at first. But know that earning only the CPA certification significantly limits your growth potential, while the CPA license provides you with the prestige, respect, and legal authority to take your career much further.

 CPA CertificateCPA License
Use the title "CPA"X
Sign audit reportsX
Sign tax reportsX
Own your own firmX
Become partner in a firmX
Get jobs only available to CPAs X
Higher earning potential X
Increased job securityX
Room for upward career movementX

CPA certificate vs CPA license 

The major difference between the CPA certificate vs CPA license manifests in the requirements needed to earn each one, as well as the benefits each provides to your career. 

To get your CPA certification, you must simply meet the CPA Exam requirements set by your state and pass the exam. Earning your CPA license is a longer process. However, taking and passing the CPA Exam tends to be the most challenging part of the process, so once you tackle that task, you're well on your way to licensure!

Earn (and keep!) your CPA license with Becker 

As the leader in CPA Exam prep with 60+ years of experience, Becker can help you through each step of the CPA licensure process. 

Becker helps you prepare for your CPA certificate and CPA license online, at your convenience, with cutting-edge technology and world-class support to help you pass the CPA Exam. 

Download our FREE 2024 CPA Exam Guide

Learn everything you need to know about the CPA Exam, from the content and topics featured on each section to tips on how to pass with confidence! 

Download Your FREE Guide to the CPA Exam

2024 CPA Exam Guide

Now Leaving

You are leaving the website. Once you click “continue,” you will be brought to a third-party website. Please be aware, the privacy policy may differ on the third-party website. Adtalem Global Education is not responsible for the security, contents and accuracy of any information provided on the third-party website. Note that the website may still be a third-party website even the format is similar to the website.