Which One to choose?

Although both the Charter Financial Analyst (CFA®) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designations play significant roles in the financial industry, it can sometimes be challenging to differentiate the tasks they perform. CFA charterholders typically work in roles such as investment analysts, portfolio managers, strategists, consultants, or wealth managers, among others. On the other hand, CPAs are often found in positions such as accountants, auditors, controllers, and chief financial officers, to name a few.

Details CFA CPA

3 exams and one of the following:

  • a bachelor's degree, be within 11 months of graduation from the date you set for the Level 1 exam
  • a combination of 4,000 hours of full-time work experience
  • and University education accrued over a minimum of 36 months
4 exams, bachelor's degree, & 150 schooling hours
Costs $3,220- $8,250 $1,000 to $3,000
Number of exams 3 4 (changes in 2024)
Exam Pass Rate 40-45% 40-50%
Content Focus Portfolio Management, Investments Financial Reporting, Audit, Tax
Career Path Investment Analyst, Portfolio Manager, Strategist, Consultant, Wealth Manager Accountant, Comptroller, Financial Manager, CFO
Study Time (hrs) 300-350 per exam 300-400 hours for entire exam
Completion Time (Course Duration) 3-5 years 2.5 - 5 years
Average Salary $180,000 $70,000

CFA Certification vs CPA Licensure

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is awarded by the CFA Institute (CFAI®) to evaluate the expertise and integrity of financial analysts. These professionals are highly sought after by financial institutions due to their top-tier talent. High-net-worth individuals, as well as institutions like endowments, pension funds, asset managers, and companies in need of internal risk management, rely on CFA charterholders for their proficiency in financial research and investing.

Achieving the CFA charter or CPA distinction requires successfully navigating individual exams. The comprehensive CFA exam is structured across three levels: CFA Level I, CFA Level II, and CFA Level III.

Steps to Obtaining the CFA Charter:

  1. Pass all three exams in sequence
  2. Collect evidence of qualifying job experience
  3. Send in reference letters to back up your application.
  4. Apply to become a CFA Charterholder.

In contrast, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) earns their professional designation through a combination of education, experience, and licensing. CPAs specialize in handling complex tax issues for clients, demonstrating their proficiency in managing intricate financial situations. They assist businesses, high-net-worth individuals, and others facing complicated financial challenges.

The CPA license, granted by the United States to State Boards of Accountancy in all 55 jurisdictions, is administered and regulated by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Unlike a centralized administrative organization, NASBA oversees CPA licensing. To sit for the exam, candidates must meet state standards set by NASBA. Additionally, the scope of employment responsibilities for CPA professionals may vary based on the state of practice.

Steps to Obtaining a CPA License:

  1. Check the CPA licensing requirements in your state - Since these state boards will ultimately license you, check with them to ensure you can take the exam in your state or jurisdiction.
  2. Complete your school requirements for a degree and acquire experience - To obtain your license where you intend to do so, you must meet the academic standards set forth by that state.
  3. Pass the CPA Exam - Your understanding of accounting standards, the legal obligations of the profession, and much more will be tested in the four components that make up the CPA exam.
  4. Finish the certification process - While some jurisdictions might mandate an ethics test, others might mandate that registered CPAs take continuing professional education (CPE) annually to keep their licenses.


To become a CFA charterholder, you need a bachelor's degree, four years of relevant experience, and must pass all three CFA exam levels. First-time CFA Program enrollees require an international passport, and exam candidates need 4,000 hours of professional experience. Prerequisites include residency, citizenship, and a social security number.

A bachelor's degree with 150 semester units (or 225 quarter units) is essential for CPA licensing. Some states allow exam eligibility with 120 hours, but 150 hours are needed for licensure. A minimum of 24 semester units in accounting is required, along with one to two years of public accounting experience. In addition, you must pass all four parts of the CPA exam.

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CFA vs CPA Exam Difficulty

The CFA examinations comprise three levels of increasing difficulty: CFA Level 1, CFA Level 2, and CFA Level 3. Renowned for their rigor, CFA exams boast a challenging nature, evidenced by an average pass rate of 41.25% as of 2023. The exam content spans financial principles, portfolio management, financial analysis, and accounting.

Note: The CFA Level 3 exam pass rate has historically been higher than the other levels.

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
2013 41% 43% 49%
2014 43% 46% 54%
2015 43% 46% 53%
2016 43% 46% 54%
2017 43% 47% 54%
2018 44% 45% 56%
2019 42% 44% 56%
2020 49% 55% 56%
2021 31% 41% 42%
2022 36.75% 42.6% 49%
2023* 38% 48% 47.5%
Average 41.25% 45.78% 51.86%

The CPA exam is difficult and extensive. Candidates who just graduated from college have an advantage since most accounting principles are taught during the core curriculum. Starting 2024, the CPA exam is restructured with three core sections – Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR) and Taxation & Regulation (REG); and one optional discipline section – Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR), Information Systems and Controls (ISC) and Tax, Compliance and Planning (TCP).

Here are the CPA 2023 Pass Rates:

Section Q1 Q2 Q3 Cumulative
AUD 47.01% 48.24% 45.64% 46.92%
BEC 56.98% 59.16% 54.90% 56.52%
FAR 41.82% 42.78% 44.08% 42.94%
REG 58.63% 59.71% 59.13% 59.19%

Salary and Career Paths - CFA vs CPA

The salaries of CFA charterholders and CPAs may vary substantially depending on individuals' educational background, job experience, the location where they live, the size and industry of their current company, and the professional path that they have chosen.

While several factors contribute to the variance in compensation, the CFA credential generally raises overall salary and benefits, giving charterholders an advantage in the job market. According to the CFA Institute, charterholders may earn higher pay than finance professionals. Charterholders with a bachelor's degree earn a median total compensation of $162,500, while those with a graduate degree earn a median total compensation of $237,357.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), on average, a CPA's annual pay, without bonuses, is around $119,000 per year. CPAs with less than one year of experience earn an average of $70,000 a year, while those with more than 20 years of experience earn an average of $150,000 annually.

Robert Half International, a financial employment agency, indicated in its compensation recommendations that accounting professionals with a CPA license earn an average of 5 to 15% more than accountants without a CPA credential. The following were the median yearly salaries of accountants and auditors in the top industries in which they worked:

  • Finance and insurance - $79,310
  • Management of companies and enterprises - $78,540
  • Government - $77,290
  • Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services - $77,080

The decision to become a CPA or a CFA charterholder is an excellent professional decision. These marks not only serve as a significant credential for accountants and analysts seeking to advance their careers but also provide a diverse range of job opportunities. Furthermore, the accreditation demonstrates your confidence and ability to achieve challenging goals to your prospective employer.

CFA Career Path
Top 5 Roles MedianSalary
Equities Portfolio Manager $316,600
Income Portfolio Manager $253,250
Chief Investment Officer $334,500
Chief Financial Officer $227,500
Financial Analyst $80,930
CPA Career Path
Top 5 Roles Median Salary
Accountant and auditor $100,000
Financial controller $110,000
Information Technology Accountants $102,910
Corporate Controller $112,000
Teacher in Accounting $127,000
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Read more about CFA

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Planning to take the CFA exam? Visit this quick guide for more information on everything you need to know before taking the exam.
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