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CIA vs CPA: Understanding Each Career Path

Becoming either a Certified Internal Auditor® (CIA) or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a great career choice. Both professional accounting credentials can help you to improve your skills, open doors to new job opportunities, and earn greater respect. But which is right for you?

CIA vs CPA: Job Functions

CIA: Internal Auditing – Certified Internal Auditors almost exclusively perform internal audits of a company’s financials and internal controls. They can audit information systems, compliance and other key internal protocols. This role requires you to always abide by high ethical standards.

CPA: Public Accounting – Certified Public Accountants must also perform their jobs ethically. They’re responsible for public accounting and financial reporting, such as preparing financial statements, tax preparation, and record keeping—all in accordance with GAAP standards. Only CPAs are allowed to sign and submit financial statements to the IRS.

CIA vs CPA: Certification Requirements

To Become a Certified Internal Auditor
You must:

  • Hold a four-year degree from an accredited college or university*
  • Have two years of verified audit work experience (a master’s degree can substitute for one year)
  • Pass the three-part CIA Exam
  • Pay all applicable application and exam fees
  • Submit a Character Reference Form signed by a CIA, CGAP, CCSA, CFSA, CRMA, or your work supervisor
  • Agree to abide by the IIA’s Code of Ethics
  • Provide proof of identification

*You can substitute either five years of work experience coupled with two years of post-secondary schooling, or seven years of verified auditing work. 

To Become a Certified Public Accountant
You must:

  • Meet the education and experience requirements of the U.S. state in which you are to be licensed. These differ from state to state, but in general you must have at least:
    • Earned a four-year degree in accounting, business or related field
    • Completed two years of general accounting work
  • Pass the four-section CPA Exam
  • Pay all applicable application and exam fees

We encourage you to closely investigate the requirements of your state.

Unlike CIAs, who are nationally certified, CPAs must obtain a license for each state in which they work. Some states have additional education and experience requirements.

CIA vs CPA: Passing the Exam

Taking the CIA Exam

The CIA Exam is 100% computer-based and consists of three parts:

  • Part 1:Internal Audit Basics
  • Part 2:Internal Audit Practice
  • Part 3:Internal Audit Knowledge Elements

You can take the exam any time throughout the year at one of the 500+ Pearson VUE centers around the world. Unlike the CPA Exam, the CIA Exam is offered in multiple languages, including Arabic, Chinese (traditional), English, French, German, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Thai.

Cost: $855 IIA Member / $1,314 Non-IIA Member (Full details on the IIA website)

Taking the CPA Exam

To become a CPA you must pass four exam sections:

  • Audit and Attestation (AUD)
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 

Like the CIA Exam, the CPA Exam is 100% computer based. However, it is only administered via Prometric Testing Centers during four two-month windows throughout the year–and only in English. These are:

  • January & February
  • April & May
  • July & August
  • October & November 

The exam is not offered in March, June, September or December.

Cost: The cost of the CPA Exam varies by state/jurisdiction, but generally costs between $1,000 and $1,125 for the application fees, registration fee, and exam fees all four sections.

CIA vs CPA: Salary

As you can see, both CIAs and CPAs require a great deal of education and experience. But in both cases, the potential bump in salary and income justifies the investment.

As always, salaries vary greatly depending on where you work and what stage you’re at in your career. All of the following salary ranges come from compensation research firm PayScale

In general, CPAs make slightly more but it all depends on your job role, employer, location, and ambition.

The Real Difference: Interest

The real difference between the credentials is in the career specialty. If you’re passionate about and interested in financial reporting, then public accounting may be for you. On the other hand, the CIA prepares you for an always varied and interesting career carrying out internal audits.

In terms of long-term prospects, much of today’s financial reporting functions are likely to move toward automation. That isn’t necessarily the case for auditing, however.

Why Not Be Both a CPA & a CIA?

Yes, why not both the CIA and the CPA? While it will take quite a bit of time to earn both credentials, it’s clear that they both provide unique value for accounting professionals. Together, they can help you to truly stand out versus your peers, especially in the ability to offer large organizations and clients a range of services—from audits to financial reporting.

So, which accounting credential is right for you?

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