Updated on April 15, 2024
Article byHimani Bhatt
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

Difference Between CPA, CMA, and CFA

The primary difference in professionals with a CPA, CMA, or CFA certification lies in their area of expertise. While a CPA specializes in general accounting and finance, a CMA is an expert in management accounting and a CFA in finance and investment services. In the context of CPA vs CMA vs CFA, although these professionals function in the finance domain, each possesses a different skill set.

CPAs mainly provide taxation, auditing, and accounting services. CFA charterholders deal with investment management, hedge funds, and equity research, while CMAs handle cost and inventory accounting and strategic planning. Kindly note that CPA is a U.S.-recognized credential, whereas the others are globally recognized ones.


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CPA vs CMA vs CFA – Comparative Table

Certification issued byAICPAIMACFA Institute
Focus AreaAll aspects of finance and accountingManagement accountingInvestment analysis and portfolio management
Career OpportunitiesPublic Accountants, Senior Financial Analyst, Personal Financial Adviso,r Staff Accountants, Corporate Controller, Finance Director OthersCost Accountant, Relationship Manager, Finance Manager, CFO, Senior Accountant, Business AnalystInvestment Analyst Strategist, Portfolio Manager, Wealth Manager, Consultant, Research Analyst, Chief Investment Officer
Exam Levels4 sections2 parts3 levels
Educational RequirementsBachelor’s Degree (150 credit hours of education)Bachelor’s Degree/Professional Accounting CertificationBachelor’s Degree
Required Work Experience1-2 years (vary as per the state)2 years4,000 hours of work experience and/or higher education
Pass Rate50% (Average)Part 1 – 34% Part 2 – 46% (varies by region)40-50%
Exam FeesAround $800 for four sections excluding registration & application fees (depends on the jurisdiction)CMA Entrance Fee $250 Exam Fee $415 per part (for professional members)  $2400-$4590 (as per the deadline)
Skills RequiredAccounting skills Analytical, research, & problem-solving skills Communication skills Broad business perspective Project management skills High ethical standardsAnalytical skills Interpersonal skills Decision-making skills Leadership skills Communication skills Management skills  Analytical skills Research skills Time Management Decision-making skills Integrity Computing abilities Attention-to-Detail  
Average Salary$82,000-$129000$76,000-$133,000$126,000-$177,000

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What is a CPA?

CPA, CMA, and CFA are the most sought-after professional credentials in the business world. The professionals with these credentials command a higher salary, better career prospects, and a professional edge over others in the accounting and finance domain. To gain a better understanding, let’s discuss each term individually. Let’s start with CPA.

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a licensed accounting professional who has passed the Uniform CPA exam and met the state boards’ necessary education and experience requirements. The American Institute for Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) coordinates with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) to conduct this exam and issue the license. 

You can consider CPAs as the cream of the crop in the accounting profession. A CPA license ensures credibility and expertise in the practice of the profession. Getting the CPA certification paves the road to a rewarding finance career in any industry.

CPAs, unlike other certified professionals, offer a wide range of other services apart from financial consulting. It includes accounting, auditing, tax preparation, and tax filing. Hence, they can act as accountants, auditors, tax professionals, forensic accountants, financial advisors, business consultants, or chief financial officers (CFOs).

To get the CPA license, you must:

  • Pass the Uniform CPA Examination.
  • Meet educational standards specified by your State Board of Accountancy
  • Fulfill professional experience requirement set by your State Board of Accountancy
  • Pass the Ethics exam (depending on your state board)

The CPA exam consists of four sections. You have to clear all the four sections within 18 months. With the continuous testing model, you can take the exam anytime during the year. To apply for the CPA exam, check the NASBA website. 

The CPA exam content covers all aspects of accounting and finance to ensure licensed CPAs have extensive knowledge to conduct their duties. For details related to the exam’s content, structure, and format, check the AICPA website and go through the CPA Exam Blueprints.

After attaining your CPA license, ensure its renewal every 1-3 years (as per the state board requirement) by fulfilling the Continuing Professional Education (CPE). Kindly keep yourself updated since the requirements keep changing as per the State Board’s amendments to its regulations and policies.

What is a CMA?

Certified Management Accountant (CMA) is an internationally recognized credential for finance professionals specializing in management accounting. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) confers the CMA certification.

The primary role of a CMA is to prepare business reports to assist management in decision making. A CMA specializes in financial planning, budgeting, business analysis, cost controlling, and strategic decision-making.

A CMA has the right blend of business and accounting expertise to evaluate a firm’s financial situation and make well-informed business decisions. This strategic decision-making ability empowers the CMA to take up leadership positions effortlessly.

To become a CMA, you have to do the following:

  • Enroll as a member in IMA
  • Submit the CMA entrance fees
  • Meet the educational requirements
  • Fulfill the work experience requirements
  • Pass the CMA exam
  • Finish 30 hours of CPE, including two hours of ethics.
  • Abide by the IMA’s ethical professional practice policy

To take the CMA exam, you should have a Bachelor’s degree in accounting or a professional accounting certification along with two continuous years of work experience in the field of financial or management accounting.

The CMA exam consists of two parts. It takes 12-18 months on average to pass both the parts. However, you are allowed a maximum of three years to finish it. While comparing the difficulty of CPA vs CMA vs CFA exams, the CMA exams are considered to be easier than the others. This is because the CMA curriculum is more limited as compared to that of CPA and CFA.

For more information on the CMA exam syllabus, please check the IMA’s Learning Outcome Statements webpage.

What is a CFA?

A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a certified professional specializing in finance and investment management services. The CFA Institute grants this certification only after completing the CFA program and fulfilling the necessary work experience requirements.

CFA charterholders can work as investment managers, money managers, asset managers, portfolio managers, research analysts, risk managers, or entrepreneurs. They can also expand their career horizon by holding executive or senior-level positions.

With their niche financial analysis skills, CFAs primarily cater to the investment industry. They work in different sectors like asset or risk management firms, commercial banks, audit firms, consulting firms, investment houses, insurance companies, etc.

To become a CFA charterholder, you must:

  • Enroll in the CFA program
  • Clear the CFA Exam
  • Meet the work experience requirements
  • Apply to enroll as a regular member in the CFA Institute
  • Submit professional reference letters along with the application
  • Become a CFA on acceptance of the application

To enroll for the CFA program, you must have a bachelor’s degree in any stream or 4,000 hours of work experience and/or higher education over a minimum period of 3 successive years. For more information on requirements for the CFA program, check the CFA Institute website.

The CFA exam consists of three levels. You can take each level twice a year with a maximum of six attempts for each level. There is no time limit to complete the CFA program.

The CFA Institute also offers study tools, scholarships, and prep providers to assist you in learning. Furthermore, you can interpret your exam result, look at the historical pass rates, and know more about the syllabus and scoring criteria of the CFA exam from the CFA website. 

CPA vs CMA vs CFA Infographics

CPA vs CMA vs CFA Infographics

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This article is a guide to CPA vs CMA vs CFA. Here we discuss the top 10 differences between CPA, CMA, and CFA with infographics and a comparison table. You may also have a look at the following CPA articles to learn more –

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