The pandemic has given us plenty of time to re-evaluate our lives and a chance to reimagine our careers or ponder how to elevate them. Earning an accounting certification could be your ticket to a more successful, lucrative career. Maybe you can use that extra time, if you’re not back to commuting to an office, to study for that accreditation.
Whether it’s the accounting gold standard, the CPA, or something more specialized in auditing, financial services, information technology, fraud or forensics, a certification in finance and accounting is often essential to reaching greater heights.
Advanced knowledge in your area of expertise should help you become more productive and demonstrates your motivation, dedication and commitment to your employer and prospective future employers. Gaining a certification also makes you more likely to earn promotions, raises and bonuses.
But don’t enter into the process lightly. The investment of time and money to earn a certification is no small matter. Depending on which one you pursue, it can cost thousands of dollars and require hundreds of hours of preparation.
And then there’s this: A certification can be difficult to earn. At the most challenging end of the spectrum, only about 50% of applicants eventually earn a CPA or a Chartered Financial Analyst designation. But the difficulty of the exams and required prep time varies significantly among the credentials.
Choose your path, and prepare for your journey
Still up for the challenge? Great! And here is some more good news: Many employers will help defray expenses that can run into the thousands of dollars.
A whopping 94% of chief financial officers (CFOs) interviewed in a recent Robert Half survey said their company covers all or some of the cost of obtaining a professional certification. Also, 95% of respondents said their organizations help with the annual cost of maintaining them, and some even allow employees to attend continuing professional education courses during work hours.
Given the size of the investment on your part and your firm’s as well, it’s critical to have clarity about your career path and area of specialization. Once you choose a credential, figure out how to time your preparation and testing to fit in between work and personal demands. Read reviews on study courses to find one that best fits the way you learn, whether online, in person or self-study, and make sure the length of a course’s digital license fits your time frame.
To help you decide, here’s a description of more than 10 popular certifications.
Best accounting certifications
- Certified Public Accountant
- Chartered Global Management Accountant
- Certified Management Accountant
- Chartered Financial Analyst
- Certified Internal Auditor
- Certified Fraud Examiner
- Certified Bank Auditor
- Certified in Financial Forensics
- Certified Information Systems Auditor
- Certified Information Technology Professional
- Other finance and accounting certifications
Certified Public Accountant
The CPA license is the most popular accounting certification for accounting and finance roles in the United States. This designation validates your expertise in tax, compliance, risk management, forensic accounting and other areas.
Granted by: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
Estimated cost: $3,000 to $4,500, depending on the state and the cost of a CPA Review Course (recommended)
Prerequisites: Typically five years of higher education (bachelor’s degree in accounting, business or finance plus additional courses necessary to reach 150 credit hours), plus verified work experience
Exam requirements: Four levels; can be taken in any order
Time to certification: Passing the CPA exam usually takes a year; exam and license requirements vary by state but include one to two years of verified work experience for a licensed CPA.
Ongoing requirements: Requirements for continuing professional education (CPE) courses vary by state.
Who should get it: This designation is a versatile one, as CPAs work in public accounting, management accounting, governmental accounting, taxation, financial advisory, compliance and other areas. The CPA is highly valued throughout the accounting industry, and some companies require it for managerial jobs. If you know you want to make your career in accounting, the CPA is the primary credential to pursue.
See this post to learn why maintaining your CPA license is valuable and how to keep it current.
Certified Management Accountant
Professionals who hold the globally recognized Certified Management Accountant (CMA) credential, established in the 1970s, are often financial decision-makers for their company and demonstrate a mastery of critical accounting, financial planning and analysis skills.
Granted by: Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)
Estimated cost: $1,475 to $3,500 for the membership fee, entrance and exam fees, study materials and a review course (optional)
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two consecutive years in financial management or management accounting
Exam requirements: Two-part, eight-hour exam
Time to certification: Typically one to two years; up to three years allowed
Ongoing requirements: 30 hours of CPE credits per year
Who should get it: Many accountants choose to get both the CPA and the CMA, as there is considerable overlap in the exam topics. The CMA is often considered a more practical application of the theoretical concepts tested in the CPA exams and is recommended for accountants in the corporate sector, particularly in large, multinational companies.
Chartered Global Management Accountant
The Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) financial certification is a global designation for CPAs working in business and government that was introduced in 2012. It’s an achievement that demonstrates your competency in management accounting skills and your expertise in developing strategies that connect all aspects of the business.
Granted by: Both AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
Estimated cost: Through AICPA, $3,200 to $5,700 for membership, exam fee, CGMA Finance Leadership Program prep course
Prerequisites: AICPA membership (Western Hemisphere) plus three years of relevant practical management accounting experience; CIMA members (Eastern Hemisphere) are already qualified.
Exam requirements: The AICPA exam is a three-hour case study requiring long-form, written answers; the CIMA path features a 12-part exam.
Time to certification: Exams are offered four times a year; results are released within four weeks; AICPA emphasizes that its mandatory leadership course is online and provides 1-, 2- or 3-year licenses that allow busy professionals to study at a pace that works for their schedule.
Ongoing requirements: Continuing professional development courses and membership in good standing
Who should get it: Finance and accounting professionals who want their experience and skills recognized throughout the world; AICPA/CIMA membership also includes education, research, scenario-planning tools and networking opportunities.
Accounting certifications for investment professionals
Here are the details for some of the top accounting designations that investment professionals may want to earn to help advance their careers:
Chartered Financial Analyst
The Chartered Finance Analyst (CFA) designation demonstrates your knowledge and competence regarding portfolio management principles, investment analysis, economics, and professional and ethical standards.
Granted by: CFA Institute
Estimated cost: $4,400 to $10,400 for the enrollment fee, exam registration fees, study materials and courses (optional)
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and 4,000 hours of relevant experience
Exam requirements: Three levels, 4.5 hours per exam; must pass one level before you move to the next
Time to certification: Can be completed in 18 months, but most people take two to four years (successful applicants report an average of more than 300 hours of study time for each level)
Ongoing requirements: 20 hours of CPE credits per year are recommended, with at least two hours of standards, regulatory and ethics education.
Who should get it: This has become a must-have for asset managers and research analysts in the investment community, and to a lesser extent, some chief executives and consultants. Finance professionals in equity analysis, fund management or hedge fund management will also find the CFA useful, as will anyone who hopes to reach the CFO or senior finance manager levels.
Accounting certifications for auditing roles
If your career path is in auditing, there are several credentials that can help you stand out to an employer, such as:
Certified Internal Auditor
The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) is the only internationally accepted designation for the internal auditor career path. People who hold this financial certification demonstrate expertise in areas such as information technology and risk and control.
Granted by: Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA)
Estimated cost: $850 to $1,750 for application and exam fees, and prep course
Prerequisites: A master’s degree and one year of internal audit experience, a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience, or five years of experience
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 6.5 hours
Time to certification: Typically a year to 18 months, but up to three years are allowed; requires an estimated 130 hours of study time
Ongoing requirements: 40 CPE credits are required annually, but some credits earned can help meet requirements for multiple Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) certificates.
Who should get it: The CIA is useful for internal auditors, particularly those who want to become managers or chief audit executives.
Certified Fraud Examiner
The Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designation is beneficial for finance professionals focused on anti-fraud endeavors across private and public agencies. Passing the exam demonstrates strong knowledge in four key areas: fraud prevention and deterrence, financial transactions and fraud schemes; law; and investigation.
Fraud examiners holding the CFE designation earn 34% more than their noncertified peers. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies employ at least one CFE.
Granted by: Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
Estimated cost: $650-$1,700 for the exam fee, membership dues and a prep course (optional)
Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree (or substitute two years of experience for each year of education short of four years) and two years of experience in a field directly or indirectly related to the detection and deterrence of fraud
Exam requirements: Four two-hour sections, take one or two sections at a time, maximum of three attempts at each section
Time to certification: 60 days to complete all four parts of the exam once you schedule the first section
Ongoing requirements: Earn 20 CPE credit hours in a 12-month period
Who should get it: The CFE is valuable for accountants, auditors, and other financial professionals whose responsibilities include detecting and deterring fraud. ACFE research indicates that organizations with CFEs on staff uncover fraud 50 percent sooner and experience fraud losses that are 62 percent smaller.
Certified Bank Auditor
The Certified Bank Auditor (CBA) designation is the industry standard for professionals who ensure that a financial institution’s records are accurate, complete and follow federal and internal guidelines. CBAs demonstrate expertise in accounting and auditing principles, banking law, and finance laws and regulations.
Granted by: Banking Administration Institute (BAI)
Estimated cost: Not divulged by BAI
Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree in accounting or business, at least two years of professional bank auditing experience
Exam requirements: Four-part exam
Time to certification: Three-year window to pass the exam
Ongoing requirements: 30 CPE credit hours annually and renewal fee
Who should get it: Certified Bank Auditors are typically employed by banks, CPA firms or as independent contractors. The process to earn this certification is typically sold in group packages to employers.
Certified in Financial Forensics
The Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) certification, initiated by AICPA in 2008, designates a premier forensic accounting services provider for courts and other forms of dispute resolution. The certificate holder is tested for expertise in fraud detection and prevention, insolvency and bankruptcy, economic damages calculation, and financial misrepresentation and valuations. Unlike the CFE, only CPAs can pursue the CFF.
Granted by: AICPA
Estimated cost: $500-$900 for exam fees, study materials including an exam review course, and the credential
Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree, CPA state certificate, 1,000 hours of forensic accounting experience in the preceding five years, 75 hours of forensic accounting-related continuing professional development in the previous five years, AICPA membership
Exam requirements: Two-part, four-hour exam
Time to certification: Candidates have two years after passing the first part to pass the second part; the study program is licensed for two years.
Ongoing requirements: 20 continuing professional development (CPD) credit hours annually, $380 annual fee
Who should get it: Accountants and other financial professionals who support legal dispute resolution related to corporate malfeasance, bankruptcy, taxes, family law, insurance claims and more
Financial Services Audit Certificate and Government Audit Professional Certificate
These are a pair of specialized assessment-based programs that bear CPE credits.
The Institute of Internal Auditors stopped taking new applicants for these certificates three years ago. It stopped testing after June 2021, but existing designees are still recognized as long as they maintain continuing education requirements.
Accounting certifications in information technology
Following are some details about in-demand IT-related certifications for accounting professionals:
Certified Information Systems Auditor
Accountants who hold a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification show they have a proficiency in information systems control, security and auditing.
Granted by: Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA)
Estimated cost: $1,900 to $2,800 for exam fees, prep course and study materials, and membership dues
Prerequisites: No experience is required to take the exam.
Exam requirements: Four-hour exam
Time to certification: A minimum of five years of professional information systems auditing, control or security work experience must be completed in a 10-year period prior to applying for certification, with up to three years of substitutions permitted for education. Candidates have five years after the exam pass date to apply for certification.
Ongoing requirements: 120 CPE credit hours over three years (minimum of 20 hours in a given year), which can be used to maintain multiple ISACA certificates, plus maintenance fees ($45 members, $85 non-members)
Who should get it: Ideal candidates are information technology and information systems professionals who audit, control, monitor and assess an organization’s information technology and business systems. Those who gain certification have the potential to earn 22% more and perform 70% better on the job, according to ISACA.
Certified Information Technology Professional
The Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) designation is a specialty credential for CPAs skilled in areas where finance intersects with technology. Certified professionals have demonstrated proficiency in assessing technology risk, supporting system implementations, and evaluating security and privacy programs.
Granted by: AICPA
Estimated cost: $1,265 for registration, credential and membership fees, plus study materials
Prerequisites: Have a verified minimum of 1,000 hours of IT experience and 75 hours of continuing education in information management and technology assurance within the five years preceding the application; hold a CPA state license or certification (active or inactive); AICPA membership
Exam requirements: Four-hour exam
Time to certification: The CITP exam requirement is waived for individuals who have passed the CISA exam.
Ongoing requirements: Complete 20 CPD credit hours annually, plus an annual certification fee
Who should get it: CPAs and recognized equivalents who specialize in information security and cyber risks; business intelligence, data management and analytics; and IT governance, risk and control
Other accounting certifications
Here are some certifications in other areas of finance and accounting that you may want to consider working toward if they align with your career goals:
- Accounts receivable (AR)/accounts payable (AP) — Most of these professionals hone their skills on the job, but an accounts receivable/payable certification can help move you up in the job ranks. AR professionals can earn Accredited Receivables Manager (ARM) or Accredited Receivables Specialists (ARS) certifications, while AP professionals opt for the Accredited Payables Manager (APM) and Accredited Payables Specialist (APS) credentials.
- Business and business systems analysts — Business analysts and business systems analysts can increase their marketability by acquiring the Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) or Certification of Competency in Business Analysis (CCBA) designations.
- Compliance — The options for compliance certifications vary, depending on your industry and specialization, and they are almost as numerous as regulatory mandates. Some options are the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP), Certified Compliance and Regulatory Professional (CCRP), Certified Regulatory and Compliance Professional (CRCP) and Investment Adviser Certified Compliance Professional (IACCP).
- Investment — Depending on the area of expertise, investment professionals may pursue designations such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) or Financial Risk Manager (FRM).
- Payroll — Holding the Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) designation can lead to supervisory roles. The Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) raises the stock of entry-level employees.
- Quality assurance — Managers in this realm often seek the Certified Quality Auditor (CQA) designation.
- Risk management — Accountants, along with finance, insurance and legal professionals, burnish their reputations by pursuing the Certified Risk Management Professional (CRMP) or Certified Risk Manager (CRM) designation.
- Taxes — To gain several of the rights of CPAs without the education or experience requirements, tax professionals often earn the Enrolled Agent (EA) designation offered by the IRS to certify their understanding of the U.S. tax code and how to apply its concepts. Other tax-related certificates include Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA) and Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP).