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

What is a CPA?

What's a CPA, and how do I become one? A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accounting professional who has met state licensing requirements to earn the CPA designation through educational training, experience and passing the CPA Exam.

What does a CPA do?

A certified public accountant by definition is not a career path or job title, but 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 sectors that CPAs work in:

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

This is not an exhaustive list. Earning CPA designation 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. What is a CPA, and do you need to be a CPA to be an accountant? 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 (CPE) requirements.

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

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

Acquiring your certified public accountant license takes time, patience and planning. Being a CPA 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 the CPA license one of the most prestigious CPA/accounting designations a professional can earn.

Why should I become a CPA?

What does CPA mean for your career? 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 (CPA):

  • 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 CPA/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 the CPA designation, 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 accounting 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 (CPA) varies depending on where you live. At a basic level, you can follow the 4 E’s:

  • Education

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 accounting 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 pursuing a master's in accounting.

  • Experience

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

  • Exam

Passing the CPA Exam can be the most difficult requirement for some candidates. The CPA Exam includes passing three core sections required by all candidates: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Taxation and Regulation (REG). Additionally, candidates must pass one discipline section: Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR), Information Systems and Controls (ISC), or Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP). 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.

  • Ethics

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

What’s a CPA journey 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!

Frequently asked questions

What does CPA stand for in accounting?

CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant.

What is a certified public accountant's responsibility? 

The sky's the limit! CPA isn't just a job title - it's a designation that can help accounting professionals with their career development. If you're considering earning your CPA license, you can work in a variety of sectors, including but not limited to: 

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

What is a CPA license? 

A CPA license shows that a professional accountant has met the profession's highest standard of achievement. A CPA license is issued when you meet all the requirements set by your state's board of accountancy. 

Where do I find my state's CPA requirements? 

Each state has different requirements for taking the CPA Exam and earning CPA licensure. You can check with your state’s board of accountancy to verify your eligibility. Here’s a full list of requirements by state and territory.

How do I apply to become a CPA? 

Once you’ve met all your state’s requirements, you can apply to take the CPA Exam. Here’s more information on how to apply and what documents you’ll need.

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