CFA® Program Requirements

Before you can register for the Level I CFA exam, you must meet CFA exam requirements such as qualified work/education experience.

Experience required to take the Level I CFA exam include:

Having completed a bachelor’s degree OR
Being a final-year student of a bachelor’s program OR
Having four years of qualified full-time work experience OR
Having a combination of college and full-time work experience that totals at least four years


CFA Education Requirements

As noted above, a completed bachelor’s program qualifies you to take the CFA exam, but you also qualify if you have completed an equivalent program or are a final-year student in a bachelor’s or equivalent program. However, you must complete your educational program before you can register for the Level II exam. You can consult your college or university to inquire about whether your program is equivalent to that of a bachelor’s degree. To validate your education, CFA Institute may request a copy of your degree, marksheet, or other documents.

Taking the CFA exam as a student may be beneficial because you often have more time to prepare for the exams than you would while working a full-time professional job, and once you graduate, it can set you apart from other job seekers. However, it also means sacrificing other extracurricular activities and possibly networking opportunities, so it is important to weigh the pros and cons when considering when to enroll.


CFA Professional Work Experience Requirements

Applicants to the CFA program must have a combination of four years (or 48 months) of full-time work experience and/or college/university education on the date of registering for the Level I exam. To meet CFA Program education requirement, professional work experience must be full-time and dates of employment cannot overlap with education. Eligible work experience is not limited to financial markets experience but should show that the applicant has highly developed judgement and business skills. CFA Institute stipulates that the job must require skills such as:

Leadership and teamwork
Business communications
Critical thinking and problem solving
Time management
Professional judgement
Analytical skills

CFA Institute does not ask for proof of work experience at the time of registration. To verify that work experience meets CFA Program requirements, CFA Institute may request documentation proving employment, payment (such as pay slips), or other relevant information.


Registration and Fee Requirements for the CFA Exam

Once you have determined that you meet CFA exam requirements, you can register for the Level I CFA exam. Registration fees for the program and exam must be submitted with your application. Candidates meeting CFA Program requirements can register for the CFA exam on the CFA Institute website.

CFA Institute charges a one-time enrollment fee of $450 to register for the CFA Program and a $1,000 standard CFA registration fee for each of the three exams. You can save up to $300 per exam by enrolling during the early registration period (about 4 months before the exam).

One-time Enrollment Fee

Early Registration Fee

Standard Registration Fee

Rescheduling a previously selected exam date typically requires payment of an additional $250 fee.  This has been reduced to $25 for 2021 exams.

To recap, enrollment and registration fees include a:

$450 one-time enrollment fee
$700 – $1,340 registration fee per exam
$250 ($25 for 2021 exams) rescheduling fee, if applicable

Curriculum, Format, and Structure of Each Exam

Each level of the CFA exam is structured differently and focuses on different elements of the curriculum. Below is information on the curriculum, format, and structure of each exam.

CFA Level I Exam

Main curriculum focus: ethics and financial reporting and analysis
Cognitive objectives focus: knowledge, comprehension, and basic application of the material
Question format: multiple choice questions
Computer-based testing structure: 180 multiple choice questions divided into two 135-minute sessions

CFA Level II Exam

Main curriculum focus: financial reporting and analysis, equity investments, and fixed income
Cognitive objectives focus: advanced application, analysis, and synthesis of the material
Question format: vignette-supported multiple-choice questions
Computer-based testing structure: one 4.5 hour session

CFA Level III Exam

Main curriculum focus: portfolio management and wealth planning
Cognitive objectives focus: advanced analysis and synthesis of the material as well as evaluation of the materials and methods used in a particular context
Question format: vignette-supported constructed response questions and vignette-supported multiple-choice questions
Computer-based testing structure: one 4.5 hour session

Each exam must be passed sequentially; that is, Level I exam must be passed before taking Level II, and Level II must be passed before taking Level III.

CFA Exam Curriculum Topics

CFA Institute has identified the following curriculum topics covered in the CFA Program exams:

Ethics and professional standards
Quantitative methods
Financial reporting and analysis
Corporate finance
Equity investments
Fixed income
Alternative investments
Portfolio management and wealth planning

While several topics may be tested at every level, you may only see some topics on exams for one or two levels. However, CFA Institute suggests that material from prior levels may be tested on a higher level.

CFA Computer-Based Testing Schedule

Starting in 2021, all CFA exams will transition to Computer-Based Testing (CBT), and there will no longer be paper-based exams. The schedule for 2021 is:

February: Level I only
May: All Levels
August: Level I and Level II
November: Level I and Level III

Learn more about the CFA Program exam schedule.

Study Plan for the Exams

Most candidates take 4-5 years to take and pass all levels of the CFA exam, and successful candidates spend around 300 hours studying for each level. Here are some key points to consider when making your study plan:

Start early
Give yourself at least six months to study.
Plan for a minimum of 300 study hours per exam
Shoot for 15 hours per week.
Plan for procrastination
Procrastination can lead to not having enough time to adequately prepare, so anticipate wanting to procrastinate and have a plan to combat it.
Use trusted CFA exam prep
Using a program of study from a CFA Institute Approved Prep Provider (APP) program exposes you to a personalized study course taught by industry expert instructors.

Passing Score

It will take up to 60 days to receive your results for the Level I and Level II exams and up to 90 days to receive your results for the Level III exam. CFA Institute Board of Governors sets a minimum passing score (MPS) on an exam-to-exam basis to help normalize results for exam difficulty. Your results will be reported as either “pass” or “did not pass.” If you score in the 70 to 80 range, you will likely pass the exams. Here is the most recent CFA exam pass rate information reported by CFA Institute:

CFA Exam Pass Rates

CFA Level I Exam Pass Rate
• June 2019 – 41%
• December 2019 – 42%
CFA Level II Exam Pass Rate
• June 2019 – 44%
CFA Level III Exam Pass Rate
• June 2019 – 56%

As you can see, less than half of candidates pass the first two levels of the exam, and just over half pass the Level III exam. So, shoot for a 70% average score across the topic areas as you do practice questions and exams to give yourself the best chance of passing each exam the first time.  

CFA Institute Membership

After meeting all CFA Program requirements and passing all three levels of the CFA exam, the last step to securing your CFA designation is becoming a CFA Institute member. To do this, you must:

Apply to become a member
• Meet all CFA Program requirements
• Submit 2 or 3 professional references
Be accepted
Activate your membership
Pay annual membership fees (currently $250 annually)
Submit your Professional Conduct Statement and Membership Agreement
Join a CFA Society (not required but highly recommended)

You are eligible to become a CFA Regular Member if you meet the CFA Program requirements for professional work and/or education experience and have a passing score for the CFA Level I Exam, CIPM Program Level II Exam, RBA Netherlands Exam, or the self-administered Standards of Practice Exam. The membership year starts on July 1st and ends on June 30th, so your first payment for annual dues will be pro-rated if you are a first time CFA Institute Member.

CFA Ethical Standards and Professional Practice

Ethics, integrity, and professionalism are cornerstones of CFA Institute expectations and requirements for CFA charterholders. The Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct require that all CFA Institute members act with professionalism and integrity as it applies to capital markets, duties to clients, recommendations, and conflicts of interest. And they must always prioritize the integrity of the profession and put the interests of their clients above their own.

Benefits of Earning the CFA Charter

Becoming a CFA charterholder communicates that you have an advanced understanding of investment analysis, real-world portfolio management skills, and professional ethical standards. Earning a CFA designation and showing that you have unmatched expertise in investment management can mean access to:

Better job opportunities
Career advancement
Better outcomes for your clients

Take the Fast Track to the CFA Charter

On average, it takes over four years to become a CFA, but if you have already met the education and/or work requirements needed to qualify for CFA Program enrollment, it is possible to become a CFA charterholder in less than two years if you pass each exam on the first try.

To become a CFA charterholder in under 2 years, your plan would look something like this:

CFA Level I Exam Plan
• October 2020 – begin 5-month study plan
• February 2021 – take CFA Level I exam
CFA Level II Exam Plan
• March 2021 – begin 6-month study plan
• August 2021 – take CFA Level II exam
CFA Level III Exam Plan
• December 2021 – begin 6-month study plan
• May 2022 – take CFA Level III exam

Are you ready for the CFA® Program exam?

Take our free CFA Program practice exam to see where you stand.

become a cfa infographic