California Accountant Professional Licensing Guide
The majority of jobs that require accounting skills in California do not require you to be licensed as a Certified Public Accountant, commonly known as a CPA. However, if you wish to practice public accounting without restrictions, becoming a licensed CPA is essential. This guide looks at everything that you as a foreign-educated accountant must do to become eligible for CPA testing and licensing in California. At the same time, it includes some background and tips on the larger accounting profession to give you an idea of the variety of opportunities available as you work to rebuild your career.
Regulating Certified Public Accountants
The California Board of Accountancy regulates one part of the accounting profession: the Certified Public Accountant, also known as a C.P.A. or CPA. If you use any of these terms to describe yourself or your business for work in California, then you must be either registered or licensed as a CPA with the Board. Before you can be eligible, you also must pass the Uniform CPA Exam. The Board will authorize you to take the exam, which is administered through testing centers by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy or NASBA.
Changes to regulation
California allows a couple pathways (combinations of education and experience) for CPA candidates. Pathways 1 and 2 have identical requirements for taking the CPA exam, but are different in the combination of education and experience they require to earn the final CPA license. Both paths will be discussed in detail in the Eligibility for Licensing section. Pathway 0, which allowed candidates without a bachelor's degree to qualify as a California CPA, was eliminated in January 2010. If you have taken at least 2 sections of the CPA exam under Pathway 0 before May 15, 2002, you may continue to sit for the exam after January 1, 2010. However, before applying for the California CPA license, you must meet the educational and experience requirements of Pathway 1 or Pathway 2.
Trends in US Accounting
Accounting, as a field, is undergoing rapid change, including:
- Increased regulation of accounting
- Technologies allowing CPAs to work across state lines and internationally
- Pressures to standardize at all levels: within state regulatory organizations, across state lines, international financial reporting standards
The goal of these initiatives is to facilitate business and to increase comparability and reliability of financial statements from different sources.
Employment in Accounting
Salaries in the accounting field vary widely depending on education, credentials, experience, field of practice, and size of an organization. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income of salaried (not self-employed) accountants and auditors was $61,690 in May 2010.
Accounting can be broken down into 4 major fields:
- Public accountants, also called external auditors
- Government accountants and auditors
- Management accountants
- Internal auditors
Of these, public accounting and government accounting stand out as areas with the greatest job opportunities for either CPAs or accountants. CPAs have an employment advantage in these fields when they are competing against non-CPA accountants.
Public accounting in particular has standards that require the use of licensed. Also, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley law tightened regulations on public accounting practices and increased the need for CPAs to help companies meet these new requirements.
With the economic downturn and major problems in the financial industry, the US government has become a growing source of jobs for CPAs and accounting and finance professionals. This is because government oversight is increasing in finance; tax work is a steady source of demand as well. The Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service are agencies hiring in large numbers which may also have some presence at the state level in California. You will need to verify if job openings require you to be a citizen or a permanent resident.
Globalization and international accounting
Special opportunities exist for accountants with knowledge of International Financial Reporting Systems (IFRS) or the earlier International Accounting Standards (IAS). If you can show that you have practiced accounting according to these systems, private companies and accounting firms with an international presence could see this as a real advantage. They need people skilled in IFRS to facilitate international business. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission has publicly stated its intention to transition towards IFRS and away from the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) that govern most accounting in the United States today. These standards are not yet emphasized in most US accounting programs.
Special note: the licensed public accountant institutes of a few foreign countries have a reciprocal agreement with several US states to promote quick licensing. California holds this agreement with accountant institutes in Australia and Canada. Their members qualify to take the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Qualification Examination (IQEX), which is administered by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. Candidates with passing IQEX scores can apply for CPA certification in California without having to have their foreign degrees evaluated. More information is available in the Important Links section under links on testing.
The majority of foreign-educated accountants, however, need to go through the three-step process described in this section before becoming licensed as a CPA in California.
Steps to licensing are as follows:
i. CREDENTIAL EVALUATION
Your first step towards becoming a CPA is to have your foreign credentials evaluated by one of the approximately 15 organizations approved by the California Board of Accountancy. All of these organizations are listed in the Uniform CPA Examination Handbook for First-Time Applicants, available in the Important Links section.
The California Board will not accept credentials or evaluation reports directly from you; they must be mailed from the credential evaluation organization directly to the Board.
It is important to have all of your university educational record(s) evaluated, not just your accounting program, since the Board will consider a range of courses to meet CPA educational qualifications. If you have also studied in the United States, request that your school(s) send transcripts directly to the Board as well.
The foreign degree evaluation process costs from $200-300 and can often take about 3 weeks.
ii. APPLY FOR AND PASS UNIFORM CPA AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS EXAMS
This step is your first direct contact with the California Board of Accountancy; you must apply for their approval to take the CPA exam.
To begin your application, go to the Board's website and open a Client Account. Once the Board emails you a confirmation and password, you can enter application information on the account.
To complete your application, print out an Application Remittance Form from your Client Account and sign and mail it to the Board together with an initial application fee for $100 (if you later need to retake part or all of your CPA exam sections, you will need to pay another $50 fee).
There are two routes to licensing identified by the Board: Pathway 1 and Pathway 2. You will need to select which Pathway you will follow at this point.
BEFORE YOU CAN QUALIFY TO TAKE THE EXAM:
Both Pathway 1 and Pathway 2 require you to show you have met the minimum education requirements of a bachelor's degree (approximately 124 semester units), including 24 semester units in accounting and 24 in business-related subjects
Before you can become licensed:
- Education requirements: no additional requirements
- Experience requirements: 2 years of general accounting experience (including 500 or more hours of attest work if you want to be authorized to sign attest reports)
- Education requirements: 150 semester units total education
- Experience requirements: 1 year of general accounting experience (including 500 or more hours of attest work if you want to be authorized to sign attest reports)
It may be possible for you to use your foreign professional experience to meet these requirements, but you will need to provide documentation.
Once your application is complete, it can take up to 8 weeks to hear back from the Board. At that time you will either receive approval to take the CPA exam, including paperwork to register, or you will learn that your credential evaluation showed that you did not meet the exam's education requirements.
If this is the case, you will receive information about what type of courses you must take to meet this deficiency. You have just one year to meet education requirements without having to reapply and pay the fee again.
To qualify for licensing or registration in California you must pass two exams, in any order:
- Professional Ethics for CPAs Exam
- Uniform CPA Exam
These will be discussed in detail in the next topic, Tests.
iii. CALIFORNIA CPA LICENSE APPLICATION
A complete CPA licensure application requires a lot of paperwork. Just some of the items you will need to provide are listed below (full information is available in the CPA Licensing Applicant Handbook):
- Application forms (can be downloaded or requested by mail)
- Documentation of general experience (two years for Pathway 1 and one year for Pathway 2)
- Criminal Conviction Disclosure Form
- Social Security Number
- Fingerprints - Livescan digital scanning or paper fingerprint cards
Fees include $250 for the licensure application and $49 or more for fingerprints.
The Board can take up to 12 weeks to examine your file after your application is complete. If your application is approved you will receive a congratulations letter with instructions on how to receive your CPA number, which you must have before you start to practice.
A final fee to register as a CPA and receive your CPA number will vary from $100-$200 depending on your birthday and the time left in the 2-year license renewal cycle.
Professional Ethics for CPAs Exam
To license in California you must take a self-study course and pass an exam on professional ethics before being eligible for licensing. The course is called Professional Ethics for CPAs (PETH). The Important Links section has information on ordering the course, which costs $150.
The examination contains 50 multiple choice questions on the following topics:
- Ethics in business
- Basic concepts and philosophy of professional conduct
- Code of Professional Conduct
- Independence, integrity and objectivity
- Interpretations and Securities and Exchange Commission rules
- Commissions and fees
- Form of practice and name
- Advertising and solicitation
- Tax Services
When you return your answers for grading, be sure to ask for your passing grade to be sent to the California Board of Accountancy.
You can take this exam either before or after the Uniform CPA Exam. Some people prefer to take this first as a way to prepare for similar material that appears on the CPA exam.
Uniform CPA Exam - test format and content Test format
The Uniform CPA Exam is a computer-based exam available 8 months out of the year during divided two month periods (after every 2 month period, there is a 1 month break). The testing company Prometric offers the exam at many sites throughout the US.
There are two types of problems on the exam:
- Multiple choice questions
Simulations are short case studies that put you in a professional situation and ask you to respond as a participant. Each simulation will require you to compose a professional communication as part of your answer, for example, an office memo or letter. There are 2 simulations in each section of the test except Business Environment and Concepts, which has no simulations.
The exam is divided into four sections. The Uniform CPA Examination Candidate Bulletin describes them as covering the following topics:
- Auditing and Attestation - 4 hours: "knowledge of auditing procedures, generally accepted auditing standards and other standards related to attest engagements, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge in those engagements"
- Business Environment and Concepts - 3 hours: "knowledge of general business environment and business concepts that candidates need to know in order to understand the underlying business reasons for, and accounting implications of, business transactions, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge"
- Financial Accounting and Reporting - 4 hours: "knowledge of generally accepted accounting principles for business enterprises, not-for-profit organizations, and governmental entities, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge"
- Regulation - 3 hours: "knowledge of federal taxation, ethics, professional and legal responsibilities, and business law, and the skills needed to apply that knowledge"
More detailed content information is available through the Candidate Bulletin and through AIPCA.
You must pass each of the four sections with a score of 75 or higher within 18 months of your first test session.
Uniform CPA Exam - fees and scheduling
Your application fee of $100 is paid to the Board of Accountancy, but the sections of your CPA exam must be paid to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). For 2012 these fees are as follows:
- Auditing and Attestation Section: $195.35
- Financial Accounting and Reporting Section: $195.35
- Regulation Section: $176.25
- Business Environment and Concepts Section: $176.25
Total for all four sections: $743.20
When NASBA receives payment it issues a Notice to Schedule (NTS) which will allow you to contact a Prometric Testing Center and schedule days and times to take the sections you have chosen.
You will need to go through this process more than once if:
- You fail any section
- You do not schedule for all 4 sections in your application
- You miss or abandon any test section
When all of your sections earn passing grades you will be able to document existing education and experience or earn the amount required for the licensing Pathway you chose.
Successfully licensing or registering as a CPA in California depends on many factors. Just some of these include:
- The completeness of your educational and professional records
- Your performance on several tests
- Your free time and how much you can afford to spend
We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show just some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become CPAs in California. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Please understand that individual experiences may vary.
Two Hypothetical Scenarios for CPA Licensing:
|Step||More Efficient Scenario|
Approximate Time and Cost
|Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
CPA + Ethics Exam
California License Application
|More Efficient Total
About 2 1/2 years + $2,200
|Less Efficient Total
About 4 years + $3,950
There are many credentials available to you as an accountant, some of which you can only earn after becoming a CPA. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook for Accountants and Auditors provides many more examples.
No CPA required
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA): this certification requires experience in management accounting, an exam, and continuing education requirements and is offered by the Institute of Management Accountants.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA): this certification requires work experience in internal auditing and a four-part exam. It is offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors.
- Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP): this credential shows additional professional development in the area of business technology as it applies to accounting practice. Coursework and exam are offered through the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
- Accredited Business Valuation specialist (ABV): this program reflects special expertise in business valuation and forensic accounting. Coursework and an exam offered through the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Setting up your business
If you plan to have your own accounting business, it is important to know that you may have to go through one more process: licensing as a Public Accountant Firm. This is not required if you plan to do business under "Your Name, CPA" and work alone (in what is called a sole proprietorship). However, if you plan to do business by another name or to include others in your practice you will need to license. Information is available on California Board of Accountancy website.
Joining a professional association
State and national associations for CPAs provide opportunities for professional development and networking. They also help set help introducing new accounting standards and develop exams, and give information and opinions on policy in California and across the US. Their websites may offer useful orientation to CPA candidates about the licensing and examination process, including test preparation. They often provide Continuing Professional Education (CPE) to members as well.
- American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
Beyond these two general associations, there are a large variety of professional associations for CPA and accountants generally. These may emphasize functional areas of accounting, different types of workplace or sector, race and ethnicity, gender, or religion.
Continuing Professional Education (CPE) requirements
A CPA licensed in California must complete 80 hours of CPE during each 2-year period between License renewals. There are specific subject areas required and a wide variety of delivery methods. Professional associations are often certified CPE providers and are a good starting point for researching CPE options.
Licensing mobility (reciprocity)
There is not a direct reciprocal agreement between California and other states for licensing at this time. This means that if you earn your CPA license in the state and wish to perform public accounting services to people or organizations in other states, you will need to research the process for that state and learn how to practice temporarily or permanently there. There is a trend towards making CPA practice easier across states, including California recognition of "substantial equivalency" for licensed CPAs from other states wishing to conduct business in California. CalCPA supports these efforts.
Common Words used in this article
Licensing and regulation:
- The California Board of Accountancy is the state regulatory agency. Its site contains a section for Applicants and its Uniform CPA Examination Handbook contains education requirements and exam information for all first-time candidates, including a list of foreign credential evaluation organizations. After passing the CPA exam, candidates will want to read the CPA Licensing Applicant Handbook for instructions on applying for the license. All forms for the CPA exam applicants and Licensing applicants are also listed on the website. For questions about exams you can contact (916) 561-1703 or write firstname.lastname@example.org; for questions about licensing, please contact (916) 561-1701 or email@example.com
- Digital fingerprinting at California Livescan sites is required if you are a California resident; if not, you can use paper fingerprint cards
- Your foreign credential evaluation service should mail your evaluation directly to the Board at the following address: California Board of Accountancy, Examination Unit, 2000 Evergreen Street, Suite 250, Sacramento, CA 95815-3832
- The CalCPA site has information on testing, continuing professional education, and other valuable information about current practices in the profession
- The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) also has information on becoming a CPA, options for continuing professional education, professional resources by practice area, and news and information about accounting practice in the US and internationally. A partner site has a tool that can help you determine if you qualify for licensing mobility across states
- Uniform CPA Exam has a tutorial and practice exam available for download
- Exam Bulletin for Uniform CPA Exam
- Prometric information for CPA testing, including Prometric test centers
- The Professional Ethics for CPAs (PETH) self-study course and exam can be requested from the California CPA Education Foundation, P.O. Box 44364, San Francisco, California 94144, (800) 922-5272
- The Uniform Certified Public Accountant Qualification Examination (IQEX) is an alternative route to CPA licensure for certain licensed public accountants; California recognizes Canada and Australia in particular. More information on the IQEX is available on the NASBA site.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook for Accountants and Auditors has information about the professions and descriptions of a wide variety of credentials available to accountants