Earning finance and accounting certifications is a big step toward improving your marketability and career advancement as a professional in this field.
Continuing education is an investment in time and money, of course, and your employer may help make the case for credentials. Robert Half research shows that a majority (72 percent) of CFOs interviewed say their company will cover all or some of the cost of obtaining a professional certification, and 76 percent said their organizations help in maintaining such certifications once they're earned.
What are the best accounting certifications?
The answer depends on your career path, specialization plans, resources and eligibility. Of the numerous certifications, each has its own requirements with regard to education, work experience and examination. Each, too, has specific skills to be gained by attaining it and ways in which it would benefit your career and positioning as an expert in the field of accounting and finance.
- Certified Public Accountant
- Chartered Global Management Accountant
- Certified Management Accountant
- Chartered Financial Analyst
- Certified Financial Services Auditor
- Certified Internal Auditor
- Certified Fraud Examiner
- Certified Government Auditing Professional
- Certified Information Systems Auditor
- Certified Information Technology Professional
Let's first take a closer look at three certifications geared to careers in corporate accounting.
Certified Public Accountant
The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license has a long reputation as the gold standard for accounting and finance roles in the United States. With this accounting certification, you validate your expertise in forensic accounting, tax, compliance, risk management and other skills that can lead to top CPA jobs.
Granted by: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
Estimated cost: $2,000 to $3,000
Prerequisites: Five years of higher education, a minimum number of continuing education credits in business and accounting (typically about 150), and verified relevant 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 state by state, but most state boards require one year of accounting experience before you get the license.
Ongoing requirements: Requirements for continuing professional education (CPE) credits 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 roles. 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 and have the time and money to invest, the CPA is a good credential to pursue.
Learn more about how to make the most of your accounting and finance career and find your next job.
Chartered Global Management Accountant
The Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) financial certification is a global designation for CPAs working in business and government. It’s an achievement that demonstrates your competency in management accounting skills and your expertise in developing strategy that connects all aspects of business.
Granted by: Both AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), two of the world’s leading accounting organizations
Estimated cost: $325 plus membership fee for AICPA; for CIMA, cost of designation is included in membership
Prerequisites: Any AICPA member is eligible, with an experience requirement of three years of relevant, work-based, practical management accounting experience. CIMA members are already qualified.
Exam requirements: One computerized case study taken on site, which asks for long-form, written answers that reflect management accounting competencies
Time to certification: Exams offered four times a year; results released within four weeks
Ongoing requirements: Membership in good standing
Who should get it: Finance and accounting professionals who want their experience and skills recognized throughout the world, in addition to research, tools and a global network
Certified Management Accountant
The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification is sponsored by the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), and is recognized globally. Professionals who hold this accounting certification demonstrate mastery of critical accounting and financial management skills from a generalized, managerial and internal perspective.
Granted by: IMA
Estimated cost: $1,000 to $2,000
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two consecutive years in financial management or management accounting
Exam requirements: Two levels, with a total exam time of eight hours
Time to certification: Typically one to two years
Ongoing requirements: 30 hours of CPE credits
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.
If you are considering a career as a financial analyst, or already working as one, you'll want to look at the CPA license, as well as professional finance certifications.
Here are five certifications for careers in banking and financial services.
Chartered Financial Analyst
Chartered Finance Analyst (CFA) certification demonstrates your knowledge and competence regarding principles of portfolio management, investment analysis, economics, and professional and ethical standards.
Granted by: CFA Institute, a nonprofit based in the U.S.
Estimated cost: $2,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and four years of relevant experience
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 18 hours; you must pass one level before you move to the next
Time to certification: Can be completed in 18 months, but most people take more than two years
Ongoing requirements: A recommended 20 hours of CPE credits, with at least two hours of standards, regulatory and ethics education
Who should get it: This has become a must-have for security analysts and asset managers in the investment community. Finance professionals who are (or aim to become) equity analysts, fund managers or hedge fund managers will also find the CFA useful, as will anyone who hopes to reach the CFO or senior finance manager levels. If you are pursuing a career in audit, however, it won’t be particularly useful to you.
Certified Financial Services Auditor
The Institute of Internal Auditors' Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA) is a specialty certification for audit professionals who have a minimum of two years of experience in financial services organizations, such as banks, holding and investment companies, insurance companies, credit agencies, or security and commodity services.
- These certifications are geared to audit, fraud and risk management careers.
Certified Internal Auditor
The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) is the only internationally accepted designation for the internal auditor career path, and people who hold this financial certification demonstrate competence in areas such as risk and control and information technology, as well as proficiency in working with internal staff and external clients.
Granted by: Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA)
Estimated cost: $1,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two years of internal audit experience (but a master’s degree can substitute for one year of experience)
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 6.5 hours
Time to certification: Typically a year to 18 months
Ongoing requirements: CPE credits are required; the number depends on your work status
Who should get it: The CIA is really only useful to internal auditors, with particular importance for those who would like to become managers or chief audit executives.
Certified Fraud Examiner
Available to members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) is beneficial for finance professionals focused on anti-fraud endeavors across private and public agencies. Passing the CFE exam demonstrates expertise in the four main areas of fraud examination: Financial Transactions and Fraud Schemes, Law, Investigation, and Fraud Prevention and Deterrence.
Applicants for the CFE exam need to submit documentation of their education and work experience, along with three professional recommendations.
Certified Government Auditing Professional
The Institute of Internal Auditors offers the Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) for audit practitioners in the public sector. It demonstrates skill in the unique requirements of government auditing. To qualify for the exam, auditors must have two years of experience in government auditing.
Here are two certifications for accountants with information technology careers.
Certified Information Systems Auditor
Accountants holding a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification can show they have a proficiency in information systems control, security and auditing.
Granted by: ISACA (previously known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association)
Estimated cost: $450 for members; $650 for nonmembers
Prerequisites: No experience is required to take the exam
Exam requirements: 150 questions; four hours, on site at locations worldwide
Time to certification: A minimum of five years of professional information systems auditing, control or security work experience is required for certification, with some substitutions possible
Ongoing requirements: Maintenance fees and CPE hours
Who should get it: Information systems audit, control and security professionals who desire global recognition
Certified Information Technology Professional
Offered by the AICPA, the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) is a specialty credential for CPAs who want to demonstrate technology skills that can help a company span the gap between business concerns and technical consideration. Aside from passing the CITP exam, additional requirements include having a minimum of 1,000 hours of business experience and 75 hours of continuing education in information management and technology assurance within the five years preceding application for the CITP.
Certifications for specific roles
Accounting education, from associate's, bachelor's and graduate degrees to certifications, is valuable not only for moving your career forward but also for expanding your skills and expertise to become a more well-rounded professional.
It can also help you become a more desirable job candidate or employee, one who can command a higher salary. According to the Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals, specialized certifications can put you at the higher end of the compensation tables.
What are the most highly sought accounting jobs and the credentials that would boost your resume if you were aspiring to them? Here’s an alphabetical list of a few:
- Accounts receivable/accounts payable — Most accounts receivable/accounts payable professionals hone their skills with on-the-job experience. But an accounts receivable or accounts payable certification can make you a more desirable applicant or move you up the job ranks. AR professionals might look into Accredited Receivables Manager (ARM) or Accredited Receivables Specialists (ARS) certifications. AP professionals might consider the Accredited Payables Manager (APM) and Accredited Payables Specialist (APS) credentials.
- Auditors — To reach higher-level auditing positions, you’ll want to consider a Master of Business Administration (MBA), as well as a CPA or CIA. IT auditors should look into the CISA, rather than the CIA.
- Business and business systems analysts — Business analysts and business systems analysts can increase their marketability by acquiring an MBA. If you want to go a step further, you can sit for the Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) or Certification of Competency in Business Analysis (CCBA).
- Compliance professionals — The options for compliance certifications vary, depending on your industry and specialization, and they are almost as numerous as regulatory mandates. Options include the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP), Certified Compliance and Regulatory Professional (CCRP), Certified Regulatory and Compliance Professional (CRCP) and Investment Adviser Compliance Certification Program (IACCP).
- Controllers — If you’re a controller on the job market, an MBA will distinguish you from other candidates, especially if it’s accompanied by a CPA or CMA credential. It’s important to note that most employers prefer the CPA, making it one of the most in-demand certifications.
- Cost accountants, staff accountants, senior accountants — You can propel yourself upward in these accounting jobs by obtaining a CPA or CMA. Employers prefer the CPA, and if you’re looking to hit senior or management levels, an MBA can help you get there.
- Financial analysts — To make the preferred candidate list as a financial analyst, you’ll need a CPA or an MBA. Having both is even better.
- Payroll professionals — Looking to land your dream payroll job? The Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) designation can help you make it to supervisory roles.
Have you seen enough acronyms for one article? Here's another: The AICPA's Certified in Entity and Intangible Valuations™ (CEIV™) credential is for CPAs and finance professionals to demonstrate a commitment to enhancing audit quality, consistency and transparency in fair value measurements for public company financial reporting purposes in the U.S.
When considering what accountant certifications to pursue, carefully study how each might help advance your career. Your choice may be swayed, for instance, by whether you work in private vs. public accounting. The niche that is your company’s focus might also dictate your direction as well as your own career aspirations.
Do you have the certifications needed to set yourself apart from other candidates and command a higher salary? If not, there’s no time like the present to show employers you mean business and increase your career opportunities by investing in professional development.