How to Become a CPA: Step-by-Step Process

The CPA credential is one of the most respected licenses both in the United States and among global companies doing business in the U.S. As the name suggests, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) serves to protect the public interest. Because of this important responsibility, there are a number of qualifications and requirements that anyone interested in becoming a CPA must meet. Most people considering becoming a CPA know about the CPA Exam, but there are a number of other important steps and requirements to keep in mind–some of which vary by location. That’s why we created this step-by-step guide explaining how to become a CPA. We’ll cover:

Why Become a CPA?

The CPA credential signifies a deep understanding of how a business operates, combined with a proven commitment to integrity, independence, and competence. No other credential can bring that combination to the table. The CPA credential can also provide a boost to your income. Many firms pay bonuses to associates who pass the CPA Exam and CPAs often advance up the ranks more quickly than other accountants. In addition, CPAs working on their own can often charge clients more, thanks to the added level of education and credibility you can demonstrate. CPAs also have a wide-variety of career options, from public accounting firms, to working within organizations of almost any type, to starting your own tax practice. If you’ve ever wondered how to pass the CPA Exam, you’re in the right place! Our team of experts is here to assist you along your CPA Exam journey.

General Requirements

Unlike many other credentials, passing an exam alone is not sufficient to become a licensed CPA. There are educational and work experience requirements, as well. These requirements to become a CPA vary somewhat by state or jurisdiction. Visit our list of State Requirements to Become a CPA to learn more.


How to Become a Certified Public Accountant

Satisfy Educational Requirements

Since educational requirements vary by state, we recommend checking with your state board. You’ll find summary information for each state, as well as important links on our list of CPA Requirements by State to learn more.

Apply for the CPA Exam

There are a number of steps for candidates who wish to apply to take the CPA Exam. View our blog post by CPA Exam expert Liz Kolar for a handy step-by-step guide to the application process.

Choose a CPA Review course

With so much content covered on the CPA Exam and such a high barrier to passing, it’s no surprise that nearly all candidates seek the assistance of a CPA Review course. Though these used to be primarily in-person lectures, now the bulk of students choose an online course. There are a lot of differences between CPA Exam prep providers, so it’s important to do your research and ensure you’re picking the right course for your needs.

What to look for in a review course

Not sure where to start? Read our blog post that highlights 5 considerations when choosing a CPA Review course. It’s important to note that the landscape for review courses has changed significantly in the past three years, so be sure to look around on your own, rather than simply choosing the course your firm or professor may be most familiar with.

Why Surgent CPA Review

Surgent CPA Review is quickly becoming a top choice for candidates because it is was built ground-up to fit the needs of today’s students. Rather than telling you to read every chapter and work every problem from start to finish, Surgent’s course identifies the most efficient path for each student based on your specific strengths and weaknesses. It uses nano-sized lectures and targeted learning to help you close knowledge gaps, rather than having you watch a 2-3 hour lecture. As a result, Surgent students tend to study for an average of 46 hours, while our student pass rates are nearly 40 points higher than the national average (and, unlike other vendors, we are fully transparent with our data and use statistically significant samples of student pass rates in our calculations). Read more about why Surgent may be right for you.

Study for the CPA Exam

On average, CPA candidates study roughly 200 hours per exam section, or 800 hours in total. The fact is, there is a lot of content on each of the four exam sections. However, most candidates come to the test with significant background knowledge from accounting classes in college and graduate school and/or from on-the-job learning. Surgent’s course is designed to help you leverage that existing knowledge so you can focus your study time on the topics that you don’t already know. We recommend taking the CPA Exam as close to graduation as possible when that knowledge is freshest, but we have had candidates successfully pass after taking as much as a decade off of work! Here are study tips for anyone working full-time and trying to pass the exam.

Pass All 4 Sections of the CPA Exam

Our webinar archive offers some great resources for passing the CPA Exam as quickly as possible. In fact, with smart planning and the right study approach, it’s totally feasible to pass all four sections in 3 months.

Obtain Your License

After you pass all four parts of the CPA Exam (congrats!), you’ll work through your state board to obtain your license. Check out our state-by-state guide for links to each state and jurisdiction.

Maintain Your License with Continuing Professional Education (CPE)

Nearly every state requires that CPAs take ongoing Continuing Professional Education (CPE) to maintain their license in good standing. Surgent has been a top provider of CPE for CPAs for more than 30 years, so be sure to check out our offering of live webinars and self-study CPE courses when you’re ready for CPE.


How Does the CPA Exam Work?

Learn about the sections of the exam, testing windows, qualifications for international students, and more details about how the CPA Exam works.

How Do You Pass the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam is no doubt challenging. National pass rates (as published by the AICPA) hover around 50% each year. But with the right preparation, study plans, and a review course that works for you, you can pass all four parts the first time. Read our guide to learn more details on how to pass the CPA Exam.

Scholarship Program

Are you currently enrolled as an accounting student at an accredited college or university in the U.S.? If so, you may be eligible to apply for a Surgent scholarship to help pay your college tuition. We also offer course scholarships to help deserving students pay for their Surgent CPA Review course.

CPA Exam Changes and Updates

It’s important to stay on top of changes to the CPA Exam, including changes to the format of the exam and changes to the content that will be testable when you plan to sit for the exam. Read our overview of Recent CPA Exam changes for more information.


Frequently Asked Questions


Do you need an accounting degree to become a CPA?


This really depends on which state you plan on getting your CPA license. Most state boards require CPA candidates to have a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting before they can sit for the CPA Exam. But, you can sit for the exam in any state since it’s the Uniform CPA Exam and is the same across the country. If you don’t have an accounting degree and have the flexibility, you can sit for the exam in a state that doesn’t require candidates to have an accounting degree.

However, it’s a little more difficult to become a CPA without a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting. At this point, only a handful of states allow candidates to become CPAs without an accounting degree; these are Hawaii, Maine, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Georgia. These states still have minimum accounting education requirements, which means you have to take a certain number of credit hours from an accredited college or university. If you aren’t an accounting major, it’s unlikely you’ll meet these requirements sticking strictly to your major’s specific degree program. You can, however, take additional credit hours to meet your state’s requirements.

Another thought to consider is that many states now require a master’s degree to become a licensed CPA. Make sure you double-check your state’s requirements to see if this is the case.

The best way to see if your state allows candidates to become a Certified Public Accountant without an accounting degree is to go to your state’s Board of Accountancy website. There, you’ll find the information you need about education requirements and accounting experience requirements, along with any other CPA requirements to become licensed in your particular state.



Do you need a graduate degree?


This also depends on the state where you’re planning on getting your CPA license. Some states require a master’s degree and/or 150 hours, which is equivalent to the 120 credit hours of a bachelor’s degree plus the 30 credit hours of a Master’s Degree in Accounting. The best course of action is to visit your state board’s website to see what the education requirements are to both sit for the exam and become licensed. You can also search NASBA’s website for your particular state, where you’ll find a wealth of information regarding the requirements to become licensed.



How long does it take to become a CPA?


How long it takes to become a Certified Public Accountant varies by the individual CPA candidate, as well as the candidate’s specific state requirements. All candidates must meet some form of education, exam, and work experience requirements to obtain their CPA License.

All states require some form of post-secondary education, often in the form of a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting. Some states allow candidates to become licensed without the accounting degree, but they still require the completion of a four-year, post-secondary degree program (such as finance or business administration), as well as a specific number of credit hours in accounting. Many states now require candidates to have 150 credit hours and/or a master’s degree in order to become licensed. Between the Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting and the potential master’s degree, candidates are looking at somewhere between 4 and 5 years of schooling before they meet the education requirements. Again, this may be slightly more or less depending on the candidate.

For the exam requirement, the window to take and pass all four parts of the CPA Exam is 18 months; some candidates may take 18 months or more while some candidates will take less time. In some states, the CPA Candidate can take the exam before finishing their bachelor’s degree, and some can take it concurrently with their master’s degree. Overall, we can estimate it takes a candidate 1 to 2 years to pass the exam.

Lastly, the work experience requirement varies from state to state. Some states require 1 year of experience (or 2000 hours), while other states require more. These hours usually must be completed under the supervision of a currently licensed CPA, often in public accounting or financial accounting. This experience can take place while a candidate is in school or while they’re concurrently taking the CPA Exam. 

If we compound these amounts, it will take a candidate on average 5 to 10 years to become a CPA. Again, it truly depends on the candidate as well as the requirements the candidate must complete. To get a better understanding of your state’s specific requirements, we recommend checking out your specific state board’s website.



How much does the CPA Exam cost?


The total cost of the CPA Examination to a CPA Candidate depends on four factors: the application fee, the examination fee, the registration fee, and the review materials cost. The costs are not set by the AICPA or NASBA, but are generally put in place by each state board of accountancy.


Application Fee: Between $50 and $200

The application fee varies from state to state, and you’ll need to pay the application fee to the state where you’ll become licensed. This fee allows you to apply to take the CPA Exam. Keep in mind, you can take the exam at any Prometric site in any state; that’s why it’s called the Uniform CPA Exam. However, you’ll want to make sure you pay the application fee to the state where you will become licensed. For example, if you plan on getting licensed in Kentucky, but will take the CPA Exam in California, you’ll pay the application fee to Kentucky. To learn more about the application fee in your state, go to your specific state board of accountancy’s website.


Examination Fee: Around $200 each, $800 total

CPA Exam fees vary by state. After you pay the application fee, you’ll receive your Authorization to Test (ATT) notice. This allows you to pay for your individual examination fees. You can pay for the sections individually, or you can purchase them all at one time. However, the Notice to Schedule (NTS) you’ll receive after you pay your examination fees only lasts for 6 months. Unless you’re planning on taking all four CPA Exam sections in the next 6 months, it’s recommended you purchase one or two exams at a time.  


Registration Fee: Varies by State and Number of Sections

When you pay your examination fees, you’ll also pay a registration fee to your state. These fees are often tiered, so you’ll save money the more you purchase. However, as we mentioned above, you’ll only have a 6-month window to take all four parts if you purchase all four parts. And while saving money now by purchasing all four parts might seem like a good idea, if you have to pay your exam and registration fees again in the future because you didn’t pass all four in the 6-month window, you’ll actually be paying more money to sit.


Review Materials Cost: Between $1,000 and $4,000 for all four sections

CPA Exam review materials are the biggest cost you’ll incur to take the CPA Exam. While they aren’t required to take the exam, they are an invaluable resource for passing. They’ll lay out the groundwork for all four exams (BEC, AUD, FAR and REG) and will walk you through what you need to know to pass each exam. You can buy individual exam review materials, but it’s generally a better deal to purchase a package that includes a CPA Review course for all four parts of the CPA Exam. Look for review materials that fit your individual needs and budget, as well as materials that have good reviews and good pass rates. Also, consider review materials that never expire. Remember, it can sometimes take more than 18 months to pass all four parts of the exam, so you’ll want to have review materials that are available should that happen.


You’ll also incur additional fees to get your CPA License, but the above fees are about what you would pay to take the CPA Exam.



What is the average salary of a CPA?


The average CPA salary in the United States is $64,682 per year and a bonus of $3880. However, CPA salaries can vary greatly depending on job title, location, years of experience, job type (public accounting vs industry accounting), and employer. Payscale reports a CPA salary range of $46,000 to $105,000. Some of the highest paying areas include Atlanta, Indianapolis, and New York. An entry-level Certified Public Accountant earns an average starting salary of $56,000, while CPAs with 5-10 years of experience earn an average annual salary of $70,000. Experienced CPAs with 10-20 years of experience earn an average salary of $81,000, while CPAs with more than 20 years of experience earn an average of $93,000. Information from



How to study while working full time?


Working full time and studying for the CPA Exam is difficult, but it is definitely possible. With a little organization and help from the right exam review materials, you’ll be applying for your CPA license in no time.

Firstly, you’ll want to create as streamlined and consistent a schedule as possible and add in work and study time to each of your days. This may mean consistently getting up early or going to a coffee shop after work every day in order to study. The key is to try to stay as consistent as possible; don’t let your schedule veer too far off course during any given week.

Secondly, find CPA Exam review materials that really do a lot of the admin work for you. Admin work may include drawing up a study schedule or figuring out what you need to study each day. Basically, anything that you have to do on top of studying is considered admin work. Consider exam review materials with adaptive learning technology. This tool can help you plan out a study schedule up to exam day, show you what you need to study on each day, and help you study more efficiently (which means you’ll pass the exam with less study time).

Thirdly, let friends, family, and your employer know how important passing the exam is to you, and how they can help you focus and study. Maybe you and your partner can set up a chores schedule that fits in with your study time, or your family members can send you encouraging notes each week. Whatever helps, just let them know you really need their support.

Lastly, find your “why” for passing the CPA Exam. Figure out the whole point of passing. Is it to make more money? To support your family? To make a specific career move? Get to the bottom of why you want to take and pass the exam, and then create a physical representation of that why. Write it on your bathroom mirror or tape it to your computer. It will serve as a gentle reminder each day of why you’re working toward the goal of getting your CPA license.




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