CPA in the USA: Requirements by State

Becoming a CPA may be the smartest career decision of your life, but it's not an easy one. Even if you're already a working accountant, even if you have your bachelor's degree in business or accounting, you've still got a few hurdles to leap before you can hang your state license on the wall of your own private public accounting practice. You need to understand how the CPA requirements by state differ, so you can know the steps to becoming a CPA in your home state.

We'd love to call it a journey, or an adventure, but you're not returning the One Ring to Mount Doom; you've got to dot your I's, cross your T's, and make sure you have met all the requirements, because the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and the state boards themselves, don't fool around. They are your gatekeepers to a career as a CPA.

Steps to Becoming a CPA: The 3 E's

CPA requirements by state have a lot of variations, but today, the field is a lot smoother and more regulated than it used to be, thanks to the NASBA and the Uniform CPA Exam. All 50 states and US territories have accepted the Uniform CPA exam as the basic standard for CPA licensure, and because of that standard, the process to CPA licensure anywhere is pretty similar in its broad strokes; the differences from state to state are details. However, those details can snag you when you're taking steps to becoming a CPA.

For the most part, CPA USA requirements boil down to the 3 E's: Education, Exam, and Experience. It's essential that you be crystal clear about a couple of things regarding the 3 E's:

1. Meeting the education requirements only qualifies you to sit for the Uniform CPA exam – they do not qualify you for a state CPA license. The CPA exam is actually just one of the qualifications for state licensure in most states.
2. There is no work experience requirement to sit for the CPA exam, but nearly every state requires documented experience to issue a license. Therefore, you can pass the exam, but if you don't have experience, you cannot get licensed.

Here are the basics that are true in all 55 CPA districts:

  • To practice as a CPA, you must have a license in the state where you practice.
  • To qualify for licensure in any state, you must pass the Uniform CPA exam.
  • To sit for the CPA exam, you must have a bachelor's degree in accounting.
  • To get your license, you must also have documented work experience.

All of the specifics – like how many credit hours of education, how many years of experience, and so on – are where each state makes its own mark.

CPA Requirements By State Visualized

CPA Education Requirements

The first, and most crucial, of the steps to becoming a CPA is the education. You can work as an entry-level accountant with just an associate's degree – for a small company, for instance, or as part of a firm – but CPA requirements by state are all essentially the same: all states require at least a bachelor's degree. That's the minimum CPA education requirements in all 55 CPA districts.

Recommended Online Accounting Programs

However – and it's a big "however" – most traditional bachelor's degrees are only 120 credit hours long. "That's long enough!" you may say, but it's not long enough for the NASBA; they've set Uniform CPA education requirements, at the minimum, at 150 credit hours, and all of the state accounting boards have followed suit for licensure (except for Guam. If those extra 30 hours are just to much for you, head for Guam).

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get CPA education requirements, though. Nearly all bachelor's in accounting degree programs today have been expanded from 120 to 150 credits, so most students going into an accounting program today will be covered. A master's in accounting program, of course, will take graduates well beyond the basic 150 credits needed for the CPA exam. And for accountants who finished their bachelor's before the new standards, the extra 30 credits can usually be covered by online CPA credit accounting courses or certificates.

CPA Exam Requirements

Here's the nice and simple part of the steps to becoming a CPA: the Uniform CPA exam is the same for everybody, in every state and every district. The exam isn't the easy part, of course – it's quite challenging; in fact, and only around 45-60% of people who take the Uniform CPA exam pass. CPA education requirements are tough, but they're necessary for the difficulty of the Uniform CPA exam.

The easy part is that for sitting for the CPA exam, CPA requirements by state don't change. To qualify, all you need to to:

  • Be an American citizen
  • Have 150 credit hours from an accredited accounting program
  • Be 21 years old

CPA Work Experience Requirements

Since most states have accepted the NASBA's CPA education requirements, the main area where states differ is in CPA work experience requirements by state; that's the last of the steps to becoming a CPA. As mentioned before, there is no work experience required to sit for the CPA exam, but every state requires some amount of work experience to get a CPA license. In many states, only 1 year of experience is necessary; in some states, it can be as much as 3-5 years of experience. The average is 2 years of experience.

You can have a passed CPA exam and no experience, and be out of luck for getting your state licensure. In no state can you get your CPA license without work experience. So what is considered accounting experience? Obviously, working full-time as an accountant in a professional capacity covers it: that may mean as a lower-level accountant in a firm, in the accounting office of a corporation, or as an assistant to a CPA.

What is considered accounting experience, besides full-time, professional jobs? Entry-level positions can also be considered for CPA work experience requirements, even the kinds of jobs accountants can get with an associate's degree in accounting: accounting clerk, bookkeeper, or some similar lower level position.

What many prospective CPAs might not realize, though, is that if you can't get a full-time job in accounting, volunteer work can also help make a dent in CPA work experience requirements. Accountants with the proper training can work as volunteers helping elderly people prepare their taxes with the AARP or senior centers, for instance; they can volunteer to work as bookkeepers for churches and non-profit organizations.

CPA Requirements By State: The Big List