Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is the statutory title of qualified accountants in the United States who have passed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination and have met additional state education and experience requirements for certification as a CPA. In most U.S. states, only CPAs who are licensed are able to provide to the public attestation (including auditing) opinions on financial statements. The exceptions to this rule are Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio, where although the "CPA" designation is restricted, the practice of auditing is not.
Many states have a lower tier of accountant qualification (below that of CPA), usually entitled "Public Accountant" (with designatory letters "PA"). However the majority of states have closed the designation "Public Accountant" to new entrants, with only about 10 states continuing to offer the designation. Many PAs belong to the National Society of (Public) Accountants
Many states prohibit the use of the designations "Certified Public Accountant" or "Public Accountant" (or the abbreviations "CPA" or "PA") by a person who is not certified as a CPA or PA in that state. As a result, in many circumstances, an out-of-state CPA is restricted from using the CPA designation or designatory letters until a license or certificate from that state is obtained.
Although some CPAs serve as business consultants, the consulting role is under scrutiny following the corporate climate in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. This has resulted in divestitures in the consulting divisions by many accounting firms. In audit engagements, CPAs are (and have always been) required by professional standards and Federal and State laws to maintain independence (both in fact and in appearance) from the entity for which they are conducting an attestation (audit and review) engagement. However, most individual CPAs who work as consultants do not work as auditors, or vice versa.
CPAs also have a niche within the income tax preparation industry. Most small to mid-sized firms have both a tax and an auditing department. Someone's CPA is one of that individual's most trusted experts. CPAs are scattered throughout the business world.
Whether providing services directly to the public or employed by corporations or associations, CPAs can operate in virtually any area of finance including:
While some CPAs are generalists and offer a range of services (especially those in small practices) many CPAs specialize in just one area and do not provide all the services listed above.
In order to become a U.S. CPA, the candidate must sit for and pass the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination (Uniform CPA Exam), which is set by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and administered by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. The first law establishing the CPA designation was passed in New York on April 17, 1896.
Eligibility to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam is determined by individual State Boards of Accountancy. Typically the requirement is a U.S. bachelors degree which includes a minimum number of qualifying credit hours in accounting and business administration with an additional 1 year study. This requirement for 5 years study is known as the "150 hour rule" and has been adopted by the majority of state boards, although there are still some exceptions (e.g.California). This requirement mandating 150 hours of study has been adopted by 45 states.
The Colorado State Board of Accountancy allows Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), together with Chartered Accountants from eligible jurisdictions automatic eligibility to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam as a Colorado candidate.
Certain overseas qualified accountants seeking to become U.S. CPA may be eligible to sit for the International Qualification Examination as an alternative to the Uniform CPA Exam.
The Uniform CPA exam tests general principles of state law such as the law of contracts and agency (questions not tailored to the variances of any particular state) and some federal law as well.
State requirements for the CPA qualification can be summed up as the Three Es - Education, Examination and Experience. The Education requirement normally must be fulfilled as part of the eligibility criteria to sit for the Uniform CPA and the Examination component is the Uniform CPA itself.
Two-tier states include Alabama, Illinois, Montana, Florida and Nebraska. However the trend is for 2-tier states to gradually move towards a 1-tier system. Since 2002, the State Boards of Washington and South Dakota have ceased issuing CPA certificates, and Illinois plans to follow suit in 2010.
A number of states are 2-tiered, but require work experience for the CPA certificate, such as Ohio.
Two-tier states do not usually require CPE to maintain a CPA certificate. However, all members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants must undertake CPE as a condition of AICPA membership.
Most states will grant CPA status under reciprocity to a CPA licensed in another state. CPAs from states with less stringent educational requirements may not be able to benefit from these provisions. This does not affect those CPAs who do not plan to offer services directly to the public. Moreover, most states would grant the temporary practicing rights to a CPA another state.
In recent years, practice mobility for CPAs has become a major issue of concern. Practice mobility for CPAs is the ability of a licensee to gain a practice privilege outside of their home state without getting an additional license in another state where they will be serving a client.
Because the electronic age makes conducting business across state borders an everyday occurrence, there is a critical need for states to adopt a uniform mobility system that will allow licensed CPAs to provide services across state lines without unnecessary burdens that do not protect the public interest.
Currently, each state has its own rules, regulations and requirements to allow out-of-state CPAs to provide services in that state, resulting in a patchwork system that is inefficient and increasingly difficult to navigate.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) have analyzed the current system for gaining practice privileges across state lines and have concluded it simply does not work.
Compliance and enforcement of the existing system is almost impossible, with multiple, cumbersome processes and disparities in requirements and fees. Business realities, including an increase in interstate commerce and virtual technologies require a uniform system that allows fluid practice across state lines.
Implementation of a uniform provision would allow consumers to receive timely services from the CPA best suited to the job, regardless of location, without the hindrances of unnecessary filings, forms and increased costs that do not protect the public interest.
Businesses today are often located in multiple states and have compliance responsibilities in multiple jurisdictions and a uniform process will give CPAs the flexibility to better serve these clients.
Uniform adoption of the substantial equivalency provision included in the Uniform Accountancy Act (the model bill for CPA regulation written and endorsed jointly by AICPA and NASBA) will create a system similar to the nation’s driver license that will provide CPAs with mobility while retaining and strengthening state boards’ ability to protect the public interest.
Prior to 2007, four states (Ohio, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin) had practice mobility laws in place for CPAs. In 2007, seven more states (Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Rhode Island and Louisiana) enacted new practice mobility laws for CPAs. As many as twenty states are expected to consider this type of legislation in 2008.
CPAs who maintain state CPA society memberships are required to follow a society professional code of conduct (in addition to any code enforced by the state regulatory authority), further reassuring clients that the CPA is an ethical business professional conducting a legitimate business who can be trusted to handle confidential personal and business financial matters. State CPA associations also serve the community by providing information and resources about the CPA profession and welcome inquiries from students, business professionals and the public-at-large.
CPAs are not normally restricted to membership in the state CPA society in which they reside or hold a license or certificate. Many CPAs who live near state borders or who hold CPA status in more than one state may join more than one state CPA society.
The designation Certified Public Accountant also exists as a public accounting designation in many overseas countries, unrelated to the U.S. CPA designation. These countries include: