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For accounting and finance professionals, choosing between earning their CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license or pursuing CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification is a significant decision, as it can set the trajectory of your career. A person who gets a CPA license typically works as a public accountant (generally tax and auditing), while a person who gets a CMA certification often works as a management accountant but may work in a wide range of other fields.

Let’s explore some of the differences and nuances of the CMA vs CPA.

What is the Difference between a CPA and a CMA?

Both the CPA and CMA provide their unique benefits, and it’s not a matter of one credential being better than the other, but a matter of which one is better for your career and interests.

The CPA is a U.S. license, while the CMA is a globally recognized certification.

The CPA is most appropriate for professionals seeking to work in public accounting. CMA certification is more appropriate for professionals seeking management and decision-making roles, often in private corporations.

What is a CPA?

What is a CPA?

Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs, are licensed by their individual state’s board of accountancy after passing the Uniform CPA Exam, administered by the AICPA. These professionals are authorized to conduct audits at Federal and State levels and can also sign tax and regulatory filings.

Passing the CPA Exam requires demonstrating mastery across four sections, specifically Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).

What is a CMA?

Certified Management Accountants, regularly called CMAs, have significant expertise in not only basic financial accounting methodologies but also strategic management and business decision-making skills.

CMA certification is granted by the IMA after passing the CMA exam, including two parts: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics and  Strategic Financial Management.

Key Differences between CPA vs CMA at a Glance

Key Differences between CPA vs CMA at a Glance

The Exam4-part exam totaling 16 hours of testing2-part exam totaling 8 hours of testing
Pass Rate50%45%
Annual Continuing Education40 hours30 hours
Experience Requirements2 years under licensed CPA2 years of Financial Management or Cost Accounting
Average Salary$65,633$94,000

IMA’s 2019 U.S. Salary Survey
Payscale Average Certified Public Accountant Salary

CPA vs CMA Careers

CPA vs CMA Careers

Job opportunities for both CMAs and CPAs are many, varied, and lucrative.

CPAs, for example, may work in a consulting firm or regional or local firms as an accountant or a financial advisor. Three common job opportunities for a CPA are public accountant, internal auditor or management accountant.

The CMA certification has a more international scope and prepares you to work in large corporations or companies with complex operations.  Companies like 3M, Alcoa, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, and Cargill regularly hire CMAs, both in the U.S. and abroad. Common jobs for CMA-holders are cost accountant, financial risk manager, consultant and C-suite executives.

CPA vs CMA Salaries

According to industry data, a CPA earns 15% more in salary that a non-CPA accountant. However, CMA certification translates to a 63% premium in compensation over professionals without a CMA. Typically, a late-career CMA-holder does earn more than a CPA. You should also take into consideration work/life balance and job satisfaction when mapping out your accounting or finance career.  

CPA vs CMA Exam Difficulty

To earn your CPA, you will need to sit for 16 hours of examinations across the four sections. The CMA exam, by comparison has two parts, with a total time of eight hours of testing. Even so, the CMA exam has a slightly lower pass rate, at roughly 45% passing the two parts, collectively, while half (~50%) or better pass each section of the CPA Exam.

All CMA candidates have three years to pass both parts of the exam. The time period will begin with the date of your entry into the CMA program. For CPA, you have 18 months to pass all four parts of the CPA Exam. The clock starts for the CPA Exam on the date you sit for and pass your first exam part.

CPA vs CMA Cost

The costs of earning a CPA license differs by state, but in general you can expect the total cost—not including a review course—to approach $1,500 with all the application fees, exam fees, and licensing fees.

For a professional pursuing CMA certification, the cost is approximately $1,000 with all the fees included. Again, this does not include the cost of a review course for studying.

Both the CPA and CMA bring additional fees when a candidate fails and needs to retake an exam section or part.

CPA vs CMA Requirements

When it comes to the requirements for eligibility, again both the CPA and CMA are similar in scope. The CPA requires a candidate to have two years of public accounting experience. Additionally, all states require at least a bachelor’s degree but many also require the candidate to hold a graduate degree (or the equivalent). Finally, after licensure, a CPA is required to complete 40 hours of Continuing Education each year.

CMA eligibility requires two years of financial management or management accounting experience. Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree or a related professional certification. Finally, 30 hours of Continuing Education are required each year to maintain certification.

Why Choose? Earn Both Your CPA and CMA

Interested in taking the CPA exam?
Access Wiley’s Free CPA Practice Exam to see where you stand.