What is a CPA? What does a Certified Public Accountant do?

What is a CPA?

What is a CPA, and how do I become one? A CPA is an accounting professional who has met state licensing requirements to earn CPA designation through educational training, experience and passing the CPA Exam. And what does CPA stand for? CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant.

What does a CPA do?

The CPA is not a career path or job title, it is a professional designation that can allow accounting professionals more flexibility and mobility in their career. Typically only licensed in one state, CPAs can become licensed in additional states based on reciprocity laws.

Across industries, CPAs are sought out for their reliability, industry knowledge and credentials. What is a CPA able to do professionally? The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) highlights these five popular fields that CPAs work in:

  • Public accounting
  • Business and industry
  • Government
  • Education
  • Non-profit

This is not an exhaustive list. Earning CPA certification can grant opportunities in nearly every industry.

CPA vs accountant: What’s the difference?

All Certified Public Accountants are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. An accountant is any person who keeps and interprets financial records. So, what’s a CPA? CPAs are not limited to one industry, or even one job function. In addition to keeping and interpreting financial records, CPAs are able to perform other services as a result of the knowledge gained in exam preparation and continuing professional education requirements.

According to the AICPA, five popular areas of interest available to those that earn CPA designation include:

  • Auditing and review
  • Tax preparation and consulting
  • Consulting services
  • Financial planning
  • Litigation consulting

Acquiring your CPA license takes time, patience and planning. It also takes a commitment to continuing education even after earning your CPA designation. CPAs are often required to complete 40 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) each year, depending on state board requirements.

Due to the difficulty of passing the CPA Exam, as well as the commitment to continuing education, many in the finance and accounting fields consider it one of the most prestigious designations a professional can earn.

Why should I become a CPA?

What is a CPA license? It’s an assurance of quality, showing that an accounting professional has met the profession’s highest standards of competence and achievement.

The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) offers these top five reasons to endure the rigorous journey of the CPA Exam and become a Certified Public Accountant:

Prestige and respect
Once you’ve endured the rigorous journey to pass the CPA Exam and completed other requirements, you will belong to a distinguished group of accountants. Take pride in this accomplishment!

Career development
Certified Public Accountants have the potential for continued career growth, both within and outside of the accounting industry.

Career security
As CPAs remain high in demand, and as retiring CPAs leave the market, there is a growing number of job opportunities for newly licensed CPAs.

Job satisfaction
After earning CPA licensure, you’re most likely more qualified to perform highly-specialized tasks that may be more meaningful or interesting.

Money and benefits (CPA salary)
What is a CPA licensure worth? Depending on your specific skills, the average CPA salary may be higher than other accounting professionals in the workforce.

How do I become a CPA?

The road to becoming a Certified Public Accountant varies depending on where you live. At a basic level, you can follow the 4 E’s:

All states require some level of accounting education to become a licensed CPA. In most states, this includes 150 credit hours in college-level accounting courses. Some CPA candidates complete this requirement as undergraduate students. While a master's degree is not specifically needed to meet the educational requirement, some of the 150 credit hour programs lead to a graduate degree. If you’re trying to decide whether a graduate degree is right for you, read about a Becker student’s experience.

Some states have experience requirements that candidates must fulfill, such as a year of work experience with a licensed CPA.

Passing the CPA Exam can be the biggest requirement for some candidates. The CPA Exam includes four separate parts: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation. We can help you prepare for all four parts of the exam. Before getting started, be sure to learn more about the CPA Exam application process.

Some states may require an ethics exam or ethics course to finalize CPA licensure. If your state requires this, Becker offers an Ethics course in our Continuing Professional Education course catalog.

What’s a CPA journey look like in your state? Check your state’s specific CPA requirements here.

Where do I start?

Ready to get started? Great decision! Start by reviewing How to become a CPA — our four-step guide to learning what it takes to begin your CPA journey!