CPA vs. CFA®

What’s the better career choice?

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CPA Exam Basics

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In the financial world, a certified accountant and a financial analyst are both very important roles. However, the roles and responsibilities of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) differ significantly. The main difference is that a CPA qualification is for those seeking careers in auditing, taxation, or accounting, while a CFA qualification is for those who want a career in financial management or to build corporate financial portfolios. Let's look at the main differences in depth.

What Is The Difference Between CPA and CFA?

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a professional who has passed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Exam. To practice accounting in any specific state, CPAs must meet the state's licensing requirements. State licensing requirements vary but typically include 150 hours of education (30 hours beyond the typical 120-hour bachelor’s degree in accounting).

The CPA qualification has become one of the most sought-after titles by professionals worldwide, and they are qualified to work in most sectors, with various options for career paths.

A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a person who has met the program standards set by the CFA Institute. CFAs are usually referred to as the "Black Belts" of finance and investment. This is the finest title to earn if you want to work as an equity analyst, fund manager, or a professional in asset or hedge fund management. The CFA program covers a broad range of topics relating to investment management, financial analysis, stocks, bonds, and derivatives, and provides a generalist knowledge of other areas of finance.

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Licensure, Application, and Requirements

Segment CPA CFA
Licensing Body American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA®) CFA Institute (CFAI®)
Levels Four parts Three Levels
Time Frame All 4 parts to be completed in 18 months 4 years
Syllabus
  • Regulation
  • Audit & Attestation
  • Business Environment and Concepts
  • Financial Accounting & Reporting
  • Financial Principles
  • Portfolio Management
  • Financial Analysis
  • Accounting
Exam Fees $1500 $2,500-$3,500 depending on the time of registration (assumes passing
the first time on all 3 levels)
Exam Difficulty Level Moderately difficult with passing rate
of ~50%
Challenging with ~10-13.5% of the
candidates clearing all the levels

CPA Licensure

The CPA License is granted by the U.S in all 55 jurisdictions by the respective State Boards of Accountancy. CPA licensure does not have a centralized administering body, but it is administered and regulated by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Candidates need to meet the state requirements set by NASBA to take the exam. Additionally, as a CPA professional, your work requirements may vary depending on the state in which you practice.

Steps to Follow to Obtain the CPA License:

  1. Check the US CPA eligibility as per the State Board Requirements
  2. Send your notarized transcripts to the State Board
  3. Fill in the CPA exam application and pay the exam fees*
  4. Get your Authorization to Test (ATT)
  5. Choose the exam(s) you want to give: AUD, REG, BEC, FAR
  6. Log in to your NASBA account and pay a fee of $180-$250
  7. Wait for your Notice to Schedule (NTS)
  8. Once you’ve received the NTS, schedule your US CPA Exam via Prometric
  9. Pass the exam to obtain the license

CFA Charter

The CFA charter is granted by the CFA Institute, a non-profit organization based in the US. The CFA Institute is headquartered in Charlottesville, VA, has eight regional offices and 160 active societies across the globe. The CFA Exam, like the CPA Exam, must be passed in order to obtain the CFA charter. However, the CFA exam has three levels: CFA Level I, CFA Level II, and CFA Level III.

Steps to Register for CFA Charter

  1. Create an online user account with your email ID
  2. Fill in details like your name, age, jurisdiction, etc
  3. Register for the Level I exam (via the CFAI website)
  4. Schedule a date on Prometrics and keep a note of the CFA registration deadline

Steps to Become a CFA Charter:

  1. Pass the Level I exam to qualify for the next levels
  2. Gather proof of qualified work experience
  3. Submit reference letters to support your application
  4. Apply to become a Charterholder in the CFA Institute
  5. Pass all the levels to obtain the license

Eligibility Requirements - CPA vs CFA

To become a CPA professional, you must have a bachelor's degree and have completed 150 credits of coursework or a related professional certificate, as well as two years of work experience in a relevant field. To become a CFA charter holder, however, you must have a bachelor's degree and four years of relevant professional experience. An international travel passport is required for everyone who wishes to enroll in the CFA or CPA Program and register for the exams for the first time. Also, CFA aspirants must have accumulated 4,000 hours of relevant professional work experience (can be in areas other than investment-related) Other requirements include residency requirements and a citizenship or social security number.

What are the requirements for obtaining the CFA® certification?

  • Pass CFA Exams (3): The CFA Program contains three levels of the curriculum, each with its own exam. Passing the exams for all three levels is required to obtain the CFA charter. Exams must be taken and passed in sequence.
  • Possess Qualified Work Experience: Candidates must complete work experience requirements to earn the Charter. The experience must be directly involved with the investment decision-making or producing a work product that informs or adds value to that process.
  • Submit Reference Letters: In support of the application, candidates must provide 2-3 professional references. These references will be asked to comment on your work experience and professional character.
  • Apply to Become a Charterholder: Apply to become a regular member of the CFA Institute. Once your application is approved and you have joined the CFA Institute, you will have earned the CFA charter.

Exam Difficulty - CPA vs CFA

CPA examinations are undeniably challenging and comprehensive. Candidates with a recent college degree, on the other hand, have an advantage because most accounting concepts are covered during academic study. The CPA Exam has four parts: Financial Auditing and Reporting (FAR), Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Regulation (REG), and Business Environment and Concepts (BEC). Of all the exams, FAR is considered the most difficult to pass, and BEC is relatively simpler. Here’s a look at the CPA 2021 Pass Rates:

Section Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Cumulative
AUD 48.56% 50.49% 47.21% 45.04% 47.98%
BEC 62.16% 63.31% 61.73% 60.27% 61.94%
FAR 46.64% 42.63% 47.83% 40.70% 44.54%
REG 59.29% 58.81% 63.12% 57.78% 59.88%

CFA has three levels of exams: CFA Level I, Level II, and Level III, with varying levels of difficulty. With an average pass percentage of 34% as of November 2021, CFA exams are considerably more difficult than most professional competitive exams. In the broader spectrum, CFA exam topics can be classified as financial principles, portfolio management, financial analysis, and accounting.

Note: The CFA Level III exam pass rate has historically been higher than the other levels.
Years Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
2013 41% 43% 49%
2014 43% 46% 54%
2015 43% 46% 53%
2016 43% 46% 54%
2017 43% 47% 54%
2018 44% 45% 56%
2019 42% 44% 56%
2020 49% 55% 56%
2021 31% 41% 42%
2022* 36% 44% N/A
Average 41.00% 45.00% 52.00%
* 2022 includes only Feb test window

Career Paths and Pay Grade - CPA vs CFA

CFA charterholders and CPAs both deal with financial data, interact with clients, and evaluate the sustainability of various firms and organizations. CFA charterholders focus on analyzing market circumstances, evaluating firms, and deciding the best method for organizations or individual clients to invest their money. They are likely to work as investment analysts, financial counselors, and portfolio managers, with some eventually rising to the position of Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

CPAs, on the other hand, compile financial records. They may compute taxes payable or evaluate corporate procedures to identify cost-cutting opportunities. In addition, they must guarantee that all necessary financial regulations are fulfilled. Accounting skills are used by some CPAs to identify evidence of fraud or other crimes. Salaries for CFAs and CPAs can differ based on region, experience level, and organization size. Having said that, the average compensation for both CFAs and CPAs is much higher than that of non-certified financial professionals and accountants. Here’s a table of the top careers mentioning the CPA vs. CFA salaries with:

CFA Careers CPA Careers
Top 5 Roles Average Salary Top 5 Roles Average Salary
Research analyst $77,000 Accountant and auditor $100,000
Financial advisor $83,000 Financial controller $101,300
Investment analyst $78,000 Information Technology Accountants $102,910
Portfolio manager $102,000 Corporate Controller $112,000
Chief Financial Officer $173,000 Accounting Professor $127,000

Recent Updates: CPA vs. CFA

If you're studying for the CPA Exam, you must stay up to date on the latest announcements. As of January 2022, there are no changes in the CPA exam format for the BEC and FAR exams, as quoted by NASBA. However, there are some updates for the AUD and REG exams. The quick summary of changes to AUD for 2022 is:

  • SASs No. 134 – 140 primarily deal with updates to the audit report for non-public companies and amendments to align other sections of the audit standards accordingly.
  • SSARS No. 25, Materiality in a Review of Financial Statements and Adverse Conclusions, changes some of the rules applicable for reviews under the Statements on Standards for Accounting and Review Services.

To know in detail about these changes, you can visit our page on CPA Updates 2022.

CFA Level II candidates have received an additional testing window starting 2022, making it three test windows a year now. There has also been a shift in the schedule for Level III candidates, helping them get their results faster. The latest window for the CFA Exam 2022 is as follows:

Level Exam Window
Level I February, May, August, November
Level II February, August, November
Level III May, August

The Buck Stops Here!

There are many other factors that go into deciding whether to pursue a CPA or CFA. To summarize, we may say that each one of them is different and specializes in different aspects of accounting and investment, respectively. While we covered some of the main differences between CPA and CFA, we would recommend you make the right choice based on your skillset, career goals, and preferences.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, you can. Obtaining both, however, does not guarantee you a specialized job requiring both credentials, but it can help you change roles, such as becoming a financial analyst from a public accountant or vice versa.

Due to their relatively higher job profiles, CFAs are typically compensated more than CPAs. However, this is not always the case, as the pay scale is dependent on factors like the experience level, skill set, and other factors of a CPA or CFA candidate.

Read More about CPA Exam

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