Top 4 Best Accounting Certifications [CPA, CFA, CMA, CIA]

There are the best international certifications when it comes to accounting and finance certifications: CPA, CFA, CMA and CIA Which is the best? Does it make sense to get more than one? Here is the analysis.

Accounting certification of choice: Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The first question is: which certification is the most useful? You can try this Grandma / Neighbor Test: Ask your grandma or neighbours and see if they know what CPA, CFA and all the likes stand for. In my case, my grandma heard of CPA only. My neighbours know about CPA and CFA. He heard of CMA but isn’t quite sure what it stands for. Grandma only knows of the CIA as the intelligence agent. If you take your own test, you will likely find that the CPA designation is the most widely recognized. It is also arguably the most prestigious. This is partly because of its longest history, and the fact that the CPA exam covers many types of work including financial accounting, management accounting, corporate finance, audit, general business and US taxation. It is generally perceived to be the accounting certification of choice. Also, CPA is the only qualification that has a statutory right to do something special, that is, signing audit reports and issuing audit opinions. Because of this, CPAs are also the most regulated. The CPA designation in the US is granted by each of the US states instead of by a federal government agency. Prerequisites, rules and regulation of each state are quite different. There is a general guideline known as the “3E”s that most state boards follow these days. It requires 5 years of higher education, a minimum number of accounting and business credit hours, passing of a uniform exam and verified relevant experience. This education requirement is the highest among all finance and accounting certifications.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) CFA is the most popular title to get in the investment community. It is now a must-have for security analysts and asset managers. The CFA’s popularity has shot up since the CFA Institute reached out internationally in 1988. Today, China and India have the highest number of CFA applicants outside of the US. CFA charterholders are well represented around the world. CFA’s scope is narrower than that of a CPA because it covers only finance and investments. An auditor or financial accountant may not need the CFA title. Having said that, those who look for a more well-rounded skill beyond accounting, or those aspiring to become a CFO or senior finance professionals, will definitely find the designation useful. The barrier of entry for the CFA program is lower than that of the CPA. Many candidates with the non-finance background are attracted to take this exam.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA) CMA is almost like a subset of CPA as it focuses on management accounting. In fact, management accounting is not emphasized in the CPA exam, so they are good complements. CMA has its value-add by specializing in cost accounting, financial analysis and strategic planning, together with corporate finance, investment decision and management. The US CMA Program is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants, also known as the IMA. There are many CMA equivalents around the world, such as the CIMA in the UK, CMA Canada, which is now part of CPA Canada, and ICWAI (now ICAI) in India. The competition for candidates is a reason why the US CMA certification is not as popular as it should be. CMA is not necessarily useful for public accountants. However, if you aim to work incorporates in the future, particularly in the Fortune 500, or companies with manufacturing facilities requiring cost and inventory management, then this particular accounting certification can help you land a good job. The eligibility requirement is also a lot more flexible than that of the CPA exam: A bachelor degree in virtually any universities around the world is sufficient to get you qualified. There are two parts instead of four parts of the exam. You need to fulfil the two years of relevant experience.

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) CIA is the designation for internal auditors. There are many opportunities for internal auditors and compliance professionals, and this particular accounting certification is the most relevant. Internal audit is important for all companies but it is a specialized niche. If you are not interested in internal audit, do not get the CIA certification. So, should I get one, two or more designations? It really depends on your career path and how you want to specialize. If you can get qualified, getting the CPA title is a good idea because it is prestigious and versatile. Getting one additional title can help distinguish yourself further. However, I would advise against getting something like CMA and CFA because they lead to completely different paths. It wastes money, time and effort, and recruiters are confused as to what you want to do. The combination of CPA and CFA, CPA and CMA, or CPA and CIA makes more sense in my opinion.