For those who are not familiar with the term, CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant. Each country has different rules and requirements for becoming a CPA, but this certification is widely known worldwide as the certified accountants in US (if you work with accounting you probably have seen before someone signing his/her name in a document, or including it on Linkedin, followed by “, CPA”).
What some people don’t know is that since 2011 you can actually obtain such certification without going to US or being an US citizen (I did that). It is not an easy process, as English is not the first language for several candidates, and there are additional costs incurred when going through the process. However, differently from other countries, you don`t need to have a Bachelors’ degree in Accounting or have attended university in US to become a US CPA.
There are actually two sources of very useful information on the whole process, if you are interested, which would be National Association of State Boards of Accountancy - NASBA’s website, where you can find among other items “The Candidate Bulletin” – a very detailed official document covering several questions you may have, and “I Pass the CPA Exam” website by Stephanie Ng, where you can find a lot of free and updated information and tips from the point of view of someone who actually took the exam.
My intent with this article is not to repeat all information from these two websites, but to provide a summary of the process based on my personal experience going through the process, and also mentoring US CPA candidates while working at a big four outside US, including the frequently asked questions I made myself or answered during this period.
Some of the pros and cons of this certification for international candidates:
- Big fours and other audit firms, and subsidiaries of US companies, always value such certification
- Approval rate is not high. So if you pass the exam means at least you have discipline for studying and ability to work under pressure
- The “Financial Accounting & Reporting” section of the exam covers several US GAAP topics and IFRS. So if you pass it means you have a good knowledge of both
- You actually acquire knowledge while studying for the exam, if you have not studied in a US university or don't work in the US environment
- The calendar to take the exam is pretty flexible, compared to other certifications (as CFA). You can take the exam during 8 months of the year. There is also no order to take the 4 sections of the exam
- Although worldly known, the US CPA is not usually accepted outside US territories. There are reciprocity agreements with some countries, so if you are certified there, you can pass an exam and use such certification in US (Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico and New Zealand). Always consult how it works (this is not automatic or simple)
- The exam and study materials are in English. If this is not your first language, it may be an obstacle, as the timing for answering questions in the exam is really tight
- The total costs (from start to end), including self-study material, is approx. US$6,500 on average for an international candidate. Some items may increase or decrease this total, but don’t expect much less than that
- If you don’t live in the countries which have international testing locations, you will have to travel to another country of even US, so also consider those costs
- Approval rate is approx. 50%
- Approx. 700 hours of study during 1 year (maybe longer if you fail), depending on your methodology for studying and ability to learn (it could be much higher or lower)
- 18 months to be approved in the 4 exams. If you don’t succeed, the oldest passed exam expires
- Annual or bi-annual fee in US dollars (normally in addition to your local CPA)
- Annual Continuing Professional Education (CPE) requirements to keep the license, with some Estates only accepting courses from US certified learning providers
How the exam works?
The requirements for the CPA are on per State basis in terms of being approved to take the exam and to obtain the license. The exam in itself is the same for all States. So choosing the State is an important step.
Although it is a bit confusing in the beginning to understand, you have two main steps in the CPA process: the CPA Examination and the CPA Licensure. In order to be able to take the exam, you already need to fulfil some requirements; otherwise, you are not even allowed to take the exam.
The exam is divided in 4 sections, being a computer-based exam:
Auditing and Attestation (AUD) - 4 Hours (72 questions and 8 task-based simulations)
Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) - 4 Hours (62 questions, 4 task-based simulations and 3 written communications tasks)
Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) - 4 Hours (66 questions and 8 task-based simulations)
Regulation (REG) - 4 Hours (76 questions and 8 task-based simulations)
You need a score of 75 to pass each section of the exam. This does not necessarily mean you need 75% of correct answers to pass, but try to achieve this percentage when studying for the exam. There is a paper from AICPA which explains the score methodology if you are interested.
Which State I should choose?
If you put States in rows and requirements in columns, you will see finding your State seems like a battleship game for an international candidate. In fact, if you will not sign any accounting or tax document in the US, it does not matter much the State you will choose. If in the future you go to live in US, you can transfer your license if you fulfill the transfer requirements for that State.
The requirements are updated by the States from times to times. Therefore, always consult the Board of Accountancy website of the State you are considering in terms of requirements, to avoid basing your decision in outdated information.
For international candidates, in previous years I would normally recommend New Hampshire, for those who had more diverse accounting credits in their academic curriculums (financial accounting, management accounting, auditing and taxation), or Oregon, for those who don’t (like me).
Why so many international candidates give up during the process and many others fail the exam?
This can be answered with another question: what the candidates who passed the exam have in common? Self-discipline for studying. During the three years I mentored some international candidates from big fours or not (while I was also studying for the exam), most of people who started the process to become a US CPA gave up before taking the first section of the exam. Normally those who can implement a routine for studying would pass. It is hard to compare passing rates among certifications, but the CPA Examination has an average of 50% passing rate (not impossible but also not easy).
A funny fact the partner responsible for the mentoring would say (he had several years mentoring candidates) is that if you take the timesheet of worked hours from the people who passed the exam, would be equal or even higher than the people who gave up. At first I didn’t believe, but after a few years I would say it is actually true.
Getting back to the first question, I would say time constraint is the main issue. International candidates normally would take the exam after starting to work, and in accounting you always have tight deadlines. This, combined with attention you would give to your family and friends, eventual work or personal trips, and other unexpected events, would make candidates to give up or not studying enough to pass the exam.
Other factors would be English (not the first language for several international candidates), pressure (time is really tight for each question in the exam), self-study material (not everyone can concentrate in self-study) and difficulty in learning the topics for the sections of the exam (the topics are not really complex, but also are not easy, and may be very different from what you learned in the university outside US).
What I need to have to pass the CPA Examination and CPA Licensure?
The main requirements for both are:
- Good knowledge of business English: not officially required, but this would prevent you from studying to the exam, as the materials are in English, and also passing the exams, due to the short timing to answer questions
- Time: also not officially required, but consider yourself on a sabbatical year from your family, friends and personal life (unfortunately this is not a joke)
- Professional accounting experience attested by another CPA: this is one of the last requirements most of candidates pay attention, but I would say it can prevent a lot of international candidates from obtaining the CPA license. Most of States require that another US CPA with who you worked with attests your professional accounting experience (normally in a letter). It doesn’t need to be a US CPA of the same State, but it needs to be a US CPA. So the question is, have you worked with any US CPA? Outside big fours or US subsidiaries this may be an issue. I suggest to check if there is this requirement in the State you are planning to choose
- Bachelors’ degree with minimum hours of formal education: most States require approx. 150 semester hours of accounting and other topics in Bachelors’ or higher (i.e. MBA) degrees. Some States only have this requirement to obtain the license, but others also before taking the exam. If your Bachelors’ degree is in Accounting, normally you would have most or all of these hours, but it depends much on the country where you went to university. High school and non-academic courses are not accepted as credits
- Minimum hours on specific topics: some States require minimum hours in specific topics within the 150 hours, as 30 hours in accounting (covering financial accounting, management accounting, auditing and taxation) and 24 hours in business (it varies in each State)
- To take the exam in the US: this reduces the list of States which accept international candidates (some States do not accept the international test centers)
- US citizenship and/or US residence in the State: a few States require that, so it also limits the number of States which accept international candidates
- Academic documentation in English: diplomas and school records should be translated to English by certified translators
- Minimum age: 18 or 19 years old is the minimum age in some States
- Passport: this is the most commonly accepted proof of identification
- Background check: a very few States require a background check, which is hard to get outside US and takes time. Avoid such States
Where are the locations I can take the exam outside US, and who can take on these locations? Why only a few locations were chosen?
This is a bit tricky. Actually, you cannot choose any of the international locations. From the list of countries provided by NASBA, you can only take the exam in the international location of the list (Japan, Brazil, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates) if you are a US citizen or have legal status of permanent or long term resident in the listed countries. Normally the largest cities in those countries would have a testing location.
If you do not qualify to test on these locations, you will need to fly to a US territory. But even if you qualify, you have the option to test in the US (I personally don’t recommend, as the exam is stressful enough to be combined with a trip). The funnier it may seem, countries in Africa, Europe and Oceania and also China have no testing locations, so their candidates need to fly to US to take the exam, what can reduce US CPA’s in those countries.According to NASBA, the locations were chosen based on a few criteria, as volume demand as demonstrated by candidates from those countries taking the exam in the US, ability to deliver the exam without legal obstacles, security threat to the exam assessed at levels equivalent to those presented domestically, and existence of established Prometric test centers.
How to study for the exam?
For an international candidate, unless the country you live has live classes and you are willing to pay for that, you would use self-study. Due to the way the exam is structured, normally you would not find online a free course which really prepares you for the exam. I personally don’t know other materials you could use, but based on colleagues who lived in US and knew other materials, the material from Becker seems to be the best available in the market.
At the date of this article, the full package “SELF-STUDY CPA Exam Review Format” would be approx. US$3,400, but you could acquire only the section of the exam you will take for approx. US$1,130. Becker has additional materials, as flashcards, but you don’t really need those. The good thing about self-study is that you make your own schedule, but at the same time you will not have anyone to answer your questions (although on internet you could clarify most of them). The period of the license is 18 months, which is also the limit of time you have to pass the 4 sections of the exam.
You can buy the license online, or contact the sales representative of Becker in your country, if available. The prices should be similar.
The material includes video classes, multiple-choice and task-based simulation exercises, a few samples of full exam so you can practice, a hard copy and also electronic version of the books. After I found my own method of study, I would say to disregard reading the book (except for consultation on specific questions), as the video classes touch the main topics covered by the books.
The table below is how would be a regular week of study. Of course some days you may study more or less than the suggested time, but in average this would be it, for around 12 months.
The material for each section of the exam varies in terms of chapters, but after finalizing the chapters, for review purpose I would be doing simulations mixing the multiple-choice questions of all chapters, and doing and redoing the samples of the full exam and the task based simulations.
Which section of the exam I should take first?
As there are 4 sections of the exam, I would take one section per trimester, always in the last day of the last full month in the test window (i.e. end of February, May, August and November). Doing this way, you should receive the results online in approx. 10 days, except for May, which may take up to 30 days. If you take one section per trimester, you have time to recover if you fail any of the sections (do it again right after).
In terms of order, I took and advise international candidates to take REG, AUD, FAR and BEC. This way you can mix two difficult sections with two not so painful. REG and FAR tend to be harder for international candidates, as they are related to US tax and business law (REG) and extensive US GAAP and IFRS content (FAR), which some people outside US are not so used to. As the 18 months to pass all 4 sections only start to count after you pass the first section, you can try REG until you pass (just don’t forget Becker’s license expires in 18 months).
What are the continuing professional education (CPE) requirements?
- depends on each State, but be prepared to take in average 40 hours a year of continuing education. Some States are stricter than others in terms of what can be accepted as CPE. For instance, in Oregon, live courses don’t need to be US certified trainings, but e-learnings need (so you will need to inform the ID of the learning provider named Quality Assurance Service – QAS).
What if I have additional questions on the process?
Internet has a lot of information about the CPA process, in addition to NASBA’s and “I Pass the CPA Exam” websites. Feel free to comment this article, and I or other people will try to help.
If you have technical issues with the material, reach out to Becker. If you have questions on the evaluation process, reach out to the evaluation agency. For questions on the requirements of the State, reach out to the State Board of Accountancy (in my case, Oregon was very helpful in all the process). Something I learned on the CPA process, if it is urgent or you have not gotten an answer, call instead of sending e-mails.
>> 7 steps to become a CPA being an international candidate <<
Step 1 – Choose your State
In my opinion, this is the first step. If you cannot find a State where you can apply to become a CPA (i.e. you don’t have all the requirements of any of the States), don’t continue with the process. This would probably happen only in case you don’t have the necessary accounting credits (hours of formal education). If this happens, you will firstly need to go back to university (another Bachelor or MBA degree) to comply with the requirement
Step 2 – Gather all the documentation (mostly academic)
You will need the original diplomas and school records of all the academic courses (Bachelor, MBA, Master, etc.) you will use as credits. If you lost or don’t have any of them, ask again your university. If they are not in English, get a certified translation of them.
You will also need a valid passport to take the exam, so renew it if it is close to expire.
Step 3 – Submit the documentation to the international evaluation agency
As your education was outside US, an agency will need to evaluate and “translate” your academic diplomas and school records to the US education system, and also taking into consideration the State you chose. Each State has a list of evaluation agencies accepted by them (always consult the website of the State Board of Accountancy). I recommend using NASBA International Evaluation Services, as it is probably the most accepted agency, and some States only accept this one.
It may take up to 10 weeks for the evaluation to be completed, after they receive your documentation. Thus submit it as soon as possible. Remember to check how to get back your original documentation (if not, the evaluation agency will discard your documents after analysed).
Step 4 – Start studying to take the exam
Define your schedule for studying and taking the sections of the exam. While you wait for the report from the evaluation agency, acquire your material and start studying for the following 12 months (3 months per section of the exam).
Step 5 – Apply for your Notice To Schedule (NTS)
Getting your report from the evaluation agency does not necessarily mean you will be accepted to sit for the exam. You will need to apply to get your NTS, which is like a certificate saying you can schedule and take the exam. For most of States you would apply at CPA Central, but check with the State first where you should apply for that. First-time applications may take about 6-8 weeks to receive the NTS, and for repeat applicants it usually takes about 6-10 days.
After receiving the NTS, international candidates still have to pay an additional fee per exam section, otherwise you will not be able to schedule your test. It takes about 24 hours to process the payment.
Step 6 – Schedule and take the exam
Finally, after payment is processed, you can schedule your section of the exam at Prometric website. You don’t need many days in advance to schedule it, but the confirmation e-mail may take a few hours. You can choose any day of the week, during the months available in the test window. CPA is a certification with a pretty flexible testing dates.
The only rule to be aware is that you cannot take the same section of the exam twice in the same test window. For instance, if you fail AUD in the first trimester of the year, you can only retake it in the second trimester.
Step 7 – Apply for your CPA license
After being approved in the 4 sections of the exam within 18 months, it means you passed the CPA Examination and can start the CPA Licensure process. Go to the website of your State Board of Accountancy, check the additional documentation you need to submit, pass the online ethics exam, pay the required fees, and submit the documentation, which will be analysed and approved by the State Board of Accountancy during a few weeks.
If everything goes well, CONGRATULATIONS, after your hard work, you became a US CPA.
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