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ACCA vs. CPA Designations for Accountants


Accountants can pursue several different certificates and credentials to enhance their standing and display their knowledge. These programs may establish that you specialize in certain fields, such as tax preparation, or they may demonstrate overall mastery of your profession. Arguably the two most prestigious credentials that an accountant can pursue are the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants). If you’re looking to grow your money instead of just keeping track of it, you may need to work with a financial advisor instead. 

What Is an ACCA?

The ACCA is a credential awarded to highly accomplished professional accountants. It certifies that you are a professional in good standing who has mastered overall accounting and finance issues to a high degree of expertise.

ACCA certification is issued by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. This is a group based in the United Kingdom. An ACCA qualification is internationally tailored, meaning that while it is generally written for U.K. accounting standards, it doesn’t rely too heavily on jurisdictional issues specific to that country. This qualification is well regarded around the world and the program is written with that in mind.

Unlike the CPA, the ACCA offers a program of study followed by a series of qualifying exams. This allows applicants to sign up for one of two paths:

1. Foundations in Accountancy

Applicants typically choose to enroll in the ACCA’s foundations program if they are relatively new to the field or if they lack formal credentials. There are no educational or professional requirements for the program, although the ACCA does recommend at least some professional experience in or around accounting.

The Foundations in Accountancy program offers study materials and exams that cover accounting principles starting with a GCSE level, the U.K. equivalent to high school studies, and progressing through college-level material. Participants receive course materials so that they can learn and master the subjects, followed by exams that allow them to demonstrate their command of the material.

2. ACCA Qualification

You can enroll in the ACCA’s qualification program if you have a bachelor’s degree, a minimum number of college credit hours or an equivalent level of education with significant study in accounting or finance.

Alternatively, you can enroll in this program if you have completed the ACCA’s foundations program or if you can take and pass the Association’s placement exam. You also need at least three years of related work experience, although you can complete this work experience while taking your ACCA exams. It is only required to complete the certification, not begin the process.

Like the Foundations program, the qualification program offers study materials as well as exams. It is built as much around teaching accounting as demonstrating mastery of the subject. Participants must take up to 13 exams issued by the association, with the exact number depending on their experience and qualifications. They must also complete an ethics and skills exam in addition to demonstrating their work experience. Most applicants should expect to take anywhere from two to four years to complete this course of study and examination.

The qualification exams cover a wide range of topics related to accounting, management, business principles and taxation. While the ACCA does not explicitly waive any requirements for accountants who hold a CPA, it does exempt professionals from many of its requirements and exams based on their academic and professional experience. In practice, this means that CPAs can receive an ACCA certification with relatively few requirements.

What Is a CPA?

acca vs cpa

Like the ACCA, a CPA is a credential awarded to highly accomplished professional accountants. Also like the ACCA, the CPA is a general credential. This means that it does not certify that you have any specific area of expertise, but rather that you have an overall mastery of accounting as a subject and profession. Holders of an ACCA or a CPA are free to pursue additional credentials to match any specialties.

This is a U.S.-based credential, and as such, it is organized around American jurisdictions. Every state and territory has its own requirements for issuing a CPA license, and some will issue their own exams or tests.

In addition, applicants must take the Uniform CPA Exam. This is a national test written and issued by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA). Note that while other sites report that the CPA Exam is also issued by the NASBA (National Association of State Boards of Accountancy), this is incorrect. Only the AICPA issues this exam. The terminology is also somewhat misleading. While the Uniform CPA Exam is considered one single exam, applicants take it in several parts over a period of months.

The result is that your specific requirements to achieve a CPA credential depend entirely on where you apply. However, in general, most states require that you have at least a bachelor’s degree with a minimum number of credit hours spent studying business and finance as well as a minimum number of years spent in relevant work experience.

A CPA is also a credential rather than a course of study. Unlike the ACCA, which helps applicants learn accounting, the CPA process is about demonstrating that you have already mastered this profession. Applicants can find test preparation materials, but relatively few compared with the ACCA and the CPA program is not intended as a course of study. You are intended to pass the exam based on skills and experience you already have.

It generally takes about 18 months for someone to complete the process of applying for a CPA license, as opposed to the several years common for an ACCA applicant. Since this credential is based in the U.S., the CPA exam tends to focus on U.S. law and accounting principles to a degree not mirrored in the ACCA exam. However, like the ACCA, the CPA is a highly valued credential that is generally respected worldwide but neither are right if you’re looking for someone to grow your money.

The Bottom Line

acca vs cpa

The ACCA and the CPA are two of the most respected accounting credentials in the world. The ACCA is issued by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants in the U.K. and can be pursued by applicants of any skill level. The CPA is issued by individual American states and is intended only for accountants with significant educational and professional experience. Choosing a professional with either certification can be a good option since both show mastery of their profession. However, you’ll likely choose a financial advisor instead of either if you’re needing someone to help with your full financial plan.

Tips for Investing

  • While an accountant can help you manage your money, they aren’t focused on helping you grow it. For that, you may need a financial advisor. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • A CPA is arguably the most advanced accounting professional in the United States. But at the same time, depending on your finances you might also need a tax attorney.

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