CPA Certificate vs License: What’s the Difference?

Readers are often confused about CPA certificate vs license. I am going to highlight the difference below, but bear in mind that CPA certificates are becoming less relevant because most state boards stopped issuing them.

CPA Certificate vs License: An Overview

Each state has its own laws and rules governing the CPA profession, and each has its own Board of Accountancy that monitors the CPAs that it licenses.For most states, the term “CPA certificate” and “CPA license” is interchangeable. However, for “two-tier states” there is a distinction between the two:

CPA Certificate

  • Work experience is often not required.
  • No CPA CPE (continuous professional education) hours required.
  • Scope of work is limited as certificate holder cannot own a CPA firm (either as sole owner or partner) or sign an audit report.
  • Cannot normally hold yourself out as a CPA.  Some states allow you to say “CPA but not in public practice”, while others simply don’t allow you to use the title in any way..

CPA License

  • Typically require 1-2 years of working experience, supervised and/or verified by a CPA licensee.
  • CPE hours required every reporting years (typically 120 hours every 3 years).
  • Can use CPA title in business cards and own CPA firm/sign audit report.

Implications to International Candidates

Because the certificate is easier to get, one can consider a certificate as the “first level”. The license, or permit to practice, is the “second level”. In fact, many international students aim for certificates only because the CPA qualification is used mainly for the enhancement of their credentials.

Due to confusion and some abuses in the system, most states have switched from two-tier to one-tier. The only state that is applicable to international candidates, in my opinion, is Montana, but even then they have restrictions on how you can use the CPA title. (Update: Montana has become 1-tier state effective July 1, 2015)

Inactive or Non-Reporting CPA License

There are other types of restricted licenses that you can consider. You may obtain a non-reporting license from Massachusetts as long as you fulfil their exam requirements (including 150 credit hours) and that you have a graduate degree. No experience is required. In turn, the non-reporting license allows you to use the CPA title without the privilege of signing audit reports.

In Guam, they have an inactive license without the need to reach 150 credit hours and accumulate the relevant experience. The applicant must be an accounting major and must fulfill the exam requirements including a 4-year bachelor degree.

These non-reporting or inactive licensees are required to fulfil CPE requirements and pay license fees on a regular basis.

But People in my Country Said I can be a CPA without Getting the License

There are questions and even challenges from readers who insist that a license is not necessary to use the US CPA title, because “everyone” said so in their country.


Nowadays, I strongly recommend that candidates regardless of origin to go for the full license. If you have difficulties fulfilling the educational or experience requirements, they are ways to resolve this.


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