CPA Certificate vs License: What’s the Difference?

Readers are often confused about the CPA certificate vs. license. There are a few differences between then, and we will see them below.

CPA Certificate vs. License: An Overview

Each state in the USA has its own laws and rules regarding the CPA profession, with each having its own Board of Accountancy to monitor the CPAs that it licenses. For a lot of states, the terms CPA certificate and CPA license are interchangeable. However, for two-tier states, there is a clear distinction between the two.

CPA License

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

CPA Certificate

  • Work experience is often not required.
  • Limited scope of work as a certificate holder cannot own a CPA firm ( sole owner or partner) or even sign an audit report.
  • No CPE (continuous professional education) hours required.
  • Cannot use the CPA title in business cards except in some states where you may be recognized as a CPA but not in public practice.

Implications to International Candidates

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

Due to the confusion and some abuses that exist in the system, most states have switched from two-tier to one-tier. 


Nowadays, CPA candidates are strongly recommended, 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. Hope this helps. If you have any queries, feel free to comment in the section below. Happy Learning!

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