CPA vs. Accountant: What’s The Difference?

Sat, Dec 06, 2014 at 5:05PM

During the search for an accountant, you may hear the terms “CPA” and “accountant” used interchangeably. All CPAs—Certified Public Accountants—are in fact accountants… but not all accountants are CPAs. Read on to find out where the difference lies, and how you can more smoothly navigate the sometimes tricky world of business accounting.

CPAs are licensed by each state, and undergo a distinct (and rigorous) process to do so. Part of this includes a focus on the “4 E’s”—150 hours of education, an exam, ethics and at least one year of supervised experience. The CPA distinction isn’t meant to discount your everyday accountant—it simply serves to highlight those uniquely hard-working, effective professionals in the accounting field.

The CPA exam is administered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the world’s largest member association that represents the accounting profession. It has over 400,000 members in 145 countries, and sets the ethical and U.S. auditing standards for private companies, nonprofit organizations and federal, state and local governments.

To sum up how the AICPA defines a certified public accountant:

“Trusted expert who helps individuals and organizations envision and shape their financial future. Characterized by commitment to objectivity, integrity and competence; excellent performance on behalf of clients, employers and the public; and accountability for the highest professional and business ethics.”

Upon receiving our licenses, CPAs must swear to protect the public interest and stay up-to-date with changes in the industry.

Since many accounting firms may be vague or ambiguous about the topic, choose one with a firm and transparent adherence to the ethics and values of the accounting profession. CPAs are expected to keep up with new information and practices (and are required to complete continued accounting education), so you know they have you and your business’s best interests in mind and have the best tools (and know-how) for the job.

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