CFA or CPA: Which Qualification is Better?

Finance professionals often pursue professional qualifications in order to advance their careers.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designations are arguably the two most prestigious titles in their respective fields. What are the differences, and which one is better?

cfa or cpa

CFA or CPA: An Overview

The CFA and CPA titles cannot be compared apple-to-apple because they represent qualification in two different sub-sectors within the general accounting and finance field.

CPA is the “black-belt” in accounting. It is originally a designation for public accountants, but non-public accountants, tax accountants and finance professionals seek the CPA title to proof their number crunching expertise. CPA also has statutory rights to sign audit report which makes the title special.

CFA, on the other hand, is the gold standard in finance and investment. For those who are looking for career as equity analysts, fund managers, and professionals in asset management or hedge fund houses, this is the best title you can get.

CFA or CPA: Application & Qualification

CPA

The CPA license is granted by each of the 55 states or jurisdiction in the United States. There is no centralized administrative body and each state has slightly different CPA exam and licensing requirements.

The eligibility criteria for US CPA is the highest among all finance related qualifications. Candidates must have at least a 4-year bachelor degree and in most cases, 150 credit hours (equivalent to 5 years of higher education) to sit for the exam.

Because of the high barrier of entry and complicated application process, it is quite a challenge for non-US candidates to take the exam.

CFA

CFA is a designation granted by CFA Institute, a global non-profit organization. The institute is based in the US, but there are 3 regional offices and 200 local chapters around the world. Candidates apply through the institute and  application is relatively simple.

As long as the candidate has a bachelor degree (not necessarily 4 years), this person can sit for the exam. The candidate can even take the exam before graduation.

CFA or CPA: Exam Content and Format

CPA

There are 4 exam sections: Financial Accounting & Reporting, Audit & Attestation, Regulation and Business Environment & Concepts.

The exam is 100% computerized consisting of multiple choice questions, task-based simulations (case studies) and written communications. Grading is mostly computerized.

You can choose to take the 4 parts one at a time, 2 at a time or even 4 at the same time. You can sit for the exam any time (Monday to Saturday) during the first 2 months of each quarter and at any prometric centers throughout the US. There are also testing centers in Japan, Brazil and 4 Middle Eastern countries.

CFA

The exam format is much less flexible for CFA. There are 3 levels of exam, and you need to complete one in order to move on to the next. Exam content is focused on financial analysis and portfolio management instead of accounting, audit and taxation.

The exam is in the traditional pencil-and-paper format graded by human. The test is administrated twice a year for Level 1, and once once a year for Level 2 and 3.

There are many international testing centers for CFA exam in major cities and metropolitan areas.

CFA or CPA: Time Required to Become Qualified

CPA

Most candidates aim to pass the CPA exam within a year. Some who have the time and commitment can study all materials within 6 months, take all 4 parts of the exam in one go and pass.

Most state boards require 1 year of accounting experience before getting the license, and for most states this experience has to be supervised and verified by a US CPA.

CFA

Although technically candidates can complete the CFA exam within 18 months (Level 1 in December, Level 2 in June, Level 3 in June the year after), most candidates take 4 years to complete the exams. It takes much longer to become a CFA than a CPA.

4 years of relevant experience is required to get the CFA designation. Your supervisor, who will be verifying your experience, does not need to be a CFA. This adds a lot of flexibility in the process.

Conclusion

When deciding whether to go for CFA or CPA, the first and foremost consideration is the relevancy to your career. Other than that, CPA has more restrictive education and experience requirement, but once you get qualified, the process is much faster. CFA has a lower entry barrier but it takes much longer time to complete.

Here are Our Choices. What’s Yours?

Stephanie chooses to be a CPA only while John is a CPA and CFA. What’s your choice?

Comments

  1. Anjani Swetha says

    I done my mba – finance and marketing in the year 2010. I don’t have any work experience. Now I want to pursue cpa exam. Without any work experience, can we study cpa? Please guide me.

  2. Hans says

    Imprimis, this was very informative for an aspiring accountant about to take his test for entry into the AFM program at Waterloo. It clears up some misconceptions, reservations and unknowns I had previously.
    Secondly, and not as importantly, I must admit I giggled a little at “pubic accountant”. Just a little spelling error.

  3. Sneha says

    Sir,
    I m CA. I m from India. I m coming to Boston with my spouse in August, as a dependent visa holder.
    I want to do job n also pursue further education life CPA or CFA.
    Please guide me what wil be better option, and can i also get maximum fees required for both CPA and CFA.

    • John / Stephanie says

      Hi Sneha,
      Thanks for your note. I am not sure your educational background other than being a CA. Assuming you don’t have a 4-year or 5-year degree, it is though to get qualified for the CPA exam. More info here: http://ipassthecpaexam.com/indian-bcom-ca-holders-for-us-cpa-exam/

      It is easier to get qualified for the CFA exam but the exam itself takes longer and is quite tough.

      On fees, I would say they cost more or less the same. You can find out the fee estimates here:
      CPA: http://ipassthecpaexam.com/cpa-exam-fees/
      CFA: http://financeresume.net/cfa-exam-fees/

      As to which one is better, I believe this is a decision you need to make for yourself, considering your own educational background and your career aspiration.

      Regards, stephanie

    • Disha says

      Hi Sneha,

      As you have already cleared CA exam in india CPA exam will be pretty easy for you. The only thing u need to make sure is each state has its own requirements i.e. you can pass the exam but you will get the license only after fulfilling State level requirements.

      Hope it helps. Good luck with moving :)

  4. Yash says

    I am an 21 year old Indian desiring to take CFA Level 1 in decmeber 2014
    I am a complete newbie to the world of finance and i have no job experience in any Field.
    I am fairly average when it comes to studying but i am good with numbers though.

    Would you suggest that i go through with CFA?

    and if i should is just reading schewser enough? i wont be taking any classes.

    Thanks

    • John / Stephanie says

      Hi Yash, thanks for your note. I suggest that you take a look at materials of CFA level 1 and see if you are interested enough to study them for an extensive period of time. Note that Level 1 is the easiest (for most people at least). If you don’t find it interesting enough, it may not be a good idea to pursue CFA. Otherwise, I encourage you to give it a try.

      The other consideration is money. You can check out our discussion on CFA exam fees and related costs here:
      http://financeresume.net/cfa-exam-fees/

      Many candidates self-study so you can do that too.

      Cheers
      John

      • Yash says

        I am fortunate to say that money wont be an issue.

        the only issues i am facing are these

        1.the work exp. – should i go for exams and work ex toghther or just tackle one at a time?
        2. lets say i spent 6-7 years to earn my charter, would it be worth it?
        i mean would CFA alone be worthy enough to have a good quality of life ?

        sorry to bother you but i need all the info i can get since this is a mojr decision of my life.

        • John / Stephanie says

          That’s good to know Yash.
          Most people have a full time job while studying for the CFA exam, so it is doable. It does take most of the leisure time away so this could be a consideration. The average number of years required by successful candidates is 4 years, so hopefully you don’t need 6-7 years for that. It will definitely burn me out if it took me that long.

          On your last question on whether CFA is worth it, it’s really a personal choice. It depends how important you feel like getting the CFA designation is for your career and your life. I would say, for me, it’s high enough for my career. Having said that, there are unemployed CFAs around the world due to many factors, so the designation cannot guarantee good quality of life. Cheers, John

  5. Vinit says

    Hi,
    I am from India. I am giving cfa level 1 and after finishing all 3 levels. My long term plan is to get the CPA as well.
    I couldn’t find anywhere the career opportunities/advantage for having BOTH the CFA and CPA.
    Can you please help me about the possible career fields in finance where i can get a advantage of having BOTH the prestigious degrees of finance as well as accounting.
    Thanks!

    • John / Stephanie says

      Hi Vinit, I won’t say there is a specific job that requires both CPA and CFA qualifications, but it helps you stand out from the crowd and get the respect with two strong and complementary skills. But it’s an interesting post topic and we’ll write something on the opportunities in the future. Thanks for the suggestions. John

  6. Bolajokospice says

    This article has been of great help. Thank you. I am a 30 year old West-African with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and i am currently enrolled for the ACCA exams. I intend to relocate to the USA and i have been thinking of which designation to obtain, CPA or CFA since i found out ACCA is not recognised in the USA. I have also been considering whether to do an MBA or MAcc. in addition to a professional qualification. Kindly advise

    • John / Stephanie says

      Hi Bolajokospice, thanks for your note and glad the article is useful. On whether MBA or Master in Accounting is better for you, it largely depends on your career aspiration. For example, if you want to go for accounting jobs esp in public accounting and taxation, then Master’s in accounting makes sense. If you aren’t too sure, or you may want to go into finance, then MBA gives you more flexibility. But then try to pick the better MBA programs. There are quite a lot of “diploma mills” that churn out MBAs. Those won’t be appreciated by recruiters and will therefore waste a lot of your time and money. Master’s in accounting tend to have less of this issue but again, pick carefully. Hope it helps! Stephanie

  7. Jainam says

    Hi Sir,

    I am Jainam Kothari, I had Completed CFA from Indian Institute(ICFAI Uni.). Now I am Planning to commence CPA.

    Could you please suggest me from which web-site i can find the study material of CPA so that I can get an Idea, weather I can do or not, as I am doing job in UK Based Company as an accountant, which is located in India.

    Thanks.

  8. Emory says

    You actually make it appear really easy along with your presentation however I in finding this
    matter to be actually something that I feel I would by no means understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely vast for me.
    I’m looking forward for your subsequent submit, I will
    try to get the dangle of it!

  9. Grace says

    Hi! Thank you for the post. Now I know the difference between CPA and CFA.
    I have few questions, but first of all let me introduce myself.
    I am a 20 year old management major student and I am taking up 3 finance subjects this semester to pursue a minor.
    The course titles of the finance subjects i am taking are: Special topics in finance, special topics in investment analysis and equity investment analysis.
    I’ve enlisted in these classes because I liked my accounting subjects but it turns out that these finance subjects are really focused on stock market and fund management in which field i am not that knowledgeable or interested.
    I want to be a international accountant and I am planning to take ACCA exam after I graduate from college.
    Do you think the three finance subjects are relevant and helpful in achieving my dream to be an accountant?
    Furthermore, I still don’t have a solid plan on how to study for the ACCA.
    As of now, i thinking of working and studying at the same time.
    Can you please suggest or adviceme on any possible directions? Like where to study and in which field to work, etc?
    Thank you very much!

  10. WAH says

    In the next 2 1/2 years I plan to take all 7 combined tests of the CFA and CPA. The main issue I’m having trouble resolving is finding a work position that will allow me to satisfy the two designations experience requirement concurrently. I know that the CPA has at most a 2 year work experience requirement and the CFA has a 4 year work requirement. I think it would be unwise to pursue a strictly accounting position, receive the CPA designation, and only after that embark upon a strictly finance position to acquire my CFA designation. With all that being said, can anyone provide examples of single positions that would satisfy both designations’ experience requirements at the same time? Any help would be very appreciated. WAH

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  12. umair says

    Hi!,firstly I would like to thank you on such an informative effort.
    My circumstances are as follows
    1) I have done B.com 2 years from Pakistan
    2) I am an ACCA member
    3)My spouse is USA national and I am planning to relocate soon
    My question is as I am not elegible to take CPA exams due to 4 years degree barrier so should I do M.Com or MSC accounting from Pakistan before relocating to be eligible to do CPA straightaway once I get to USA.

  13. Ali says

    Hello,

    I completed my B.COM in Accounting from Univ of Mumbai and moved to Houston, TX for my MBA. In Dec 2010, I completed my MBA from U of H and started working at Accenture as a Management Consultant. Unfortunately, I was stuck with Change Mgt. before I could switch to Finance Optimization. However, this is neither aligned to CPA or CFA.

    I am think of doing a CPA now, since I only 2 need to complete 2 pre-req courses. Will this open new avenues for me? CPA or CFA, what are your thoughts?

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