CFA vs. CPA: Which is Right for Me?
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By John Alexander Adam
The CFA and CPA qualifications are the two most well-known internationally recognized professional qualifications for
accountaing and financial services professionals but respectively focus on very different specializations. The CFA charter
is governed by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute (CFAI) and is designed to verify excellence in
professional and ethical standards of individuals managing investment capital. The CPA is managed by
the American Institute of Chartered Public Accountants (AICPA) and has become an international standard for
English-speaking accountancy professionals via the Uniform CPA Examination administration.
While the CFA and CPA qualifications apply to two distinct fields of financial services professionals,
investment managers and accountants, and thus have curriculums covering largely distinct knowledge
and skills sets, there are a number of similarities.
1.) Standard of Excellence: firstly, both are considered as the international standard of excellence
for professionals in their respective fields. Holding either CFA or CPA accreditation marks
professionals out as having the ‘black belt’ in investment or accountancy skills and knowledge.
2.) Professional Advancement: both open the door to positions of greater responsibility and
potentially higher remuneration as well as being required by employers for certain positions.
3.) Hard work: both require extensive study (approx. 250 hours per CFA level and 400 for the CPA
exam) and significant professional experience in order to be attained. From beginning an
education in accountancy to full CPA qualification takes an average of 8 years while CFA
accreditation would be expected to take at least 6 years.
4.) High Bar: both are difficult to be awarded with pass rates at an average of less than 50%. Less
than a 5th of candidates applying for Level I of the CFA accreditation process complete Level III
within 5 years.
5.) Practical Application: both demonstrate that holders have the theoretical knowledge, skills and
ethical understanding relevant to professional investment managers and accountants
respectively, as well as being able to apply those to practical situations.
6.) English Language: both exams are in English with all official study materials also exclusively
available in English.
The most telling difference between the CFA and CPA qualifications is of course the different sets of
professional knowledge and skills assessed, investment management and accountancy. Otherwise, there
are a number of other notable differences.
1.) Optional or Mandatory: The CFA charter is not an official requirement to work as an
investment professional and it is possible to begin your career without holding the CFA
qualification. However, professionals who hold the CFA are generally both more competitive on
the jobs market, many employers prefer or demand CFA accredited candidates, especially for
more senior positions, and demand greater professional authority. The CPA accreditation on the other
hand is a basic requirement for many accountancy jobs such as public accounting and
2.) Centralized/Decentralized Pass Criteria: The CFA charter is issued directly through the
central body of the CFA Institute, a US-based NGO, though exam centers can be found
internationally. Accreditation criteria is universal and based upon meeting a minimum work
experience requirement of 4 years in a relevant role and passing all three examination levels. The
CPA exam, however, while set by the AICPA, requires candidates to apply through a particular
US State, which have slightly different rules in terms of work experience and education.
3.) Three Exams or One: attaining the CFA charter requires candidates pass three levels of
exams which will usually be taken over at least 3 years, presuming each level is successfully
taken at the first time of asking. Most successful candidates require at least 4 years to take all
three levels. On the other hand, applicants need only to have completed the first year of a
bachelor degree before beginning the process, or alternatively have a minimum of 4 years of
direct work experience in the investment industry. To register for the CPA exam however,
candidates must already have completed a bachelor degree including 24-30 semester hours in
accounting. However, once a prospective candidate has the pre-requisite educational
background, CPA accreditation is achieved by passing one exam broken down into 4 sections
over 14 hours.
4.) Examination Locations: while the CFA exams can be taken in a large number of countries and
locations around the world, CPA exams are administered in a more limited variety of locales
outside of the USA. Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE in the Middle East, Brazil in South
America and Japan in Asia host CPA exams via participating state boards of accountancy.
5.) Examination Schedules: the CFA examination takes place only once a year, in June, or twice for
Level I, in June and December. While the CPA examination takes place four times a year in most
6.) Curriculum: the primary difference of course is the subject matter that the two professional
qualifications cover. The CFA exams cover ethical and professional standards in investment
management, investment tools, asset evaluation and portfolio management and wealth planning.
The CPA curriculum and exam questions are focused on financial accounting and reporting, audit
and attestation, regulation and business environment and concepts.
Which Qualification is for Me?
Both the CFA and CPA are the only licensed qualifications in investment and accounting respectively. As
such, the decision as to which of the two examination processes to apply for entirely depends upon
whether you plan a career as an investment or accountancy professional.
preparing for and sitting the exams. Please get in touch for further information!