CPA vs CMA: the difference between CPA and CMA

15 min read

For many accounting students and career accountants, certification or licensure is a huge consideration. Do I pursue an advanced accounting certification? Is it necessary? If so, which one? What are the benefits to pursuing a CMA vs CPA license? And what is the difference between CMA and CPA?

Two of the most popular advanced accounting certifications around the world are the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license and the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification. Your choice of certification may have a tremendous effect on your future, so it is important to carefully consider the details before making a decision. 

The good news? You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Becker is here to help! Let’s look at the differences between CPA licensure and CMA certification.

Why certify?

Why should you even pursue a fancy new title? Certification sets you apart from other jobseekers with similar skillsets throughout your entire working life. It demonstrates to your employer your commitment to the profession. And in some cases, you must be certified to be promoted. For example, the CPA license is necessary for auditors in public accounting who want to be promoted.

CMA or CPA: the basics

Before deciding which path to take, CMA vs CPA, it’s important to understand the basics of both accounting certifications. By definition, here is the difference between the CMA and CPA.


The Certified Management Accountant is a globally recognized certification in financial accounting and strategic management. CMAs pass the CMA Exam and meet other eligibility requirements. This certification is offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).


The Certified Public Accountant is a license given to an accounting professional who has passed the CPA Exam and has met their state’s licensing requirements. This licensure is offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

The difference between CPA and CMA

The main differences between CMA and CPA are their respective educational requirements, testing structures and costs. Here is a full breakdown of CPA vs CMA.  


While both certifications require a significant investment of your time, there are differences in the amount of education required to become a CMA vs CPA.

One crucial difference between CMA vs CPA educational requirements is that the CMA Exam may be taken while a student is still in school – ideal for setting yourself apart from the competition for that first job! Although you can take the exam while you are still in school, to become fully certified, you must complete a bachelor’s degree program and satisfy experience requirements at your job.

The requirements to become a CPA vary from state to state. Visit the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy ( to find the specific requirements in your state or territory. In order to take the CPA Exam, you must have at a minimum several accounting and business classes. Many states require 150 hours of college credit before you can even take the exam, which can be satisfied by additional undergraduate courses or a master’s degree. To become fully licensed in all states, you must have 150 hours of college credit and satisfy accounting experience requirements.

Once you have achieved either the CPA or CMA certification, you aren’t done with education! Both certifications have annual minimum continuing professional education (CPE) requirements. These requirements can be satisfied in many ways – seminars, online courses, self-study courses, etc. CPE requirements vary from state to state; however, generally, CPAs need 40 hours of CPE per year and CMAs need 30 hours per year. Both CMAs and CPAs have an annual ethics requirement for their CPE as well (2 hours for CMAs, CPA ethics requirements vary by state). Becker is the best resource to earn these CPE credits - you can learn more about our diverse offerings at our CPE course catalog.


The biggest hurdle to achieving the CPA or CMA is passing the exam. The content of each set of exams is well-documented by each examining body (the IMA for CMAs and the AICPA for CPAs). Although the CMA vs CPA Exam difficulty is subjective, some of the main differences between CPA and CMA are the exam formats and requirements. Let’s take a look at the difference between CPA and CMA exam structures.

The CMA Exam is a two-part exam covering 12 competencies that are detailed in the exam’s content specification outline:

• Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics

• Part 2: Strategic Financial Management

The exams can be taken during three testing windows throughout the year:

January – February

May – June

September – October

Each of the exam parts is composed of 100 multiple choice questions and two comprehensive essays. The multiple-choice part of the exam counts for 75% of the exam score. The exam is timed, and you have a total of four hours to take the exam: three hours to take the multiple-choice and one hour for the essays. If you do not score high enough on the multiple-choice questions to be able to receive a passing score after taking the essays, your exam will end after the multiple-choice questions. The total points are 500, and you must score 360 or more to pass. You must pass both parts within 3 years of entering the program or you will have to re-pay the entry fees and forfeit the part you have passed (i.e. you start all over!).

The CPA Exam is a four-part exam and you are allowed up to four hours of exam time per part. The parts are currently:

• Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

• Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

• Regulation (REG)

• Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

The competencies covered on the CPA Exam are outlined in the AICPA blueprint. Make sure you review the proper blueprint for the exam period in which you’ll be sitting for the exam since the AICPA releases updated blueprints about every six months.

Each of the four exams consists of five parts or testlets: two multiple-choice testlets containing between 60 to 72 multiple-choice questions (varies by exam) and three testlets with eight accounting simulations. From the date you sit for your first passed exam, you have 18 months to pass all four parts. If you can’t pass within the 18-month window, you will begin to have to retake exams already passed that fall outside the 18-month window.

When considering whether to pursue the CMA vs CPA Exam, it’s important to be informed – read what other students preparing for the exams are saying and ask your network. Becker also has resources to help you along the way. However, CMA vs CPA Exam difficulty should only be one factor in your decision, alongside your career aspirations, the reputation of the certifications and more.


Another element to consider when deciding between the CMA vs CPA is the cost. Benefits of earning either CPA licensure or CMA certification far outweigh the costs. However, depending on your circumstances, start-up fees could be an important factor.

CMA certification costs include exam fees, review courses, CPE and other costs. The CMA Exam has an entrance fee and a registration fee for each exam part. If you are a professional member of the IMA your entrance fees and exam fees total $1,080, if you pass both parts the first time. If you’re a student or professor, your total fees are only $810. IMA membership is also required – the cost for membership varies, depending on your career path and level. 

The cost to take the CPA Exam and earn CPA licensure ranges by jurisdiction. The cost to apply, register, and take all four exams is over $1,000 in almost every state. Additional licensure costs and fees vary by state as well.

CPA or CMA career path

Another difference between CPA and CMA is the career outcomes that may become available after pursuing the certifications. When considering CMA vs CPA, know that both certifications can lead to careers in accounting and outside of traditional accounting positions. Some of the traditional accounting paths for CPAs revolve around providing accounting services as a public accountant, internal auditor or corporate financial accountant.

Some traditional careers for CMAs include accounting in a corporate setting and include management accountant, cost accountant, financial accountant, and financial risk manager. 


Regardless of whether you choose the accounting CMA vs CPA , achieving an accounting certification will help you stand out for your first job as well as for your next promotion. Many employers will pay for their employees’ exam fees as well as a review course. With proper education and preparation, you can become certified and reap the benefits of a great decision throughout your entire career!

Made your decision? No matter your route, CMA or CPA, Becker is your partner along the way.


Start your CPA journey here. >

Start your CMA journey here. >

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