CPA vs. Accountant (With Requirements and Differences)

Updated December 20, 2022

Individuals with an interest in financial operations and skills in math or accounting practices can find a variety of roles and job titles in the field. Each job and level in the field may have different qualifications, duties, and requirements. Learning about the difference between the role of a chartered professional accountant and a regular accountant can help you determine which job best fits your experience, interests, and values. In this article, we discuss the meaning and primary differences between a CPA vs. accountant and review tips for pursuing a role in the field.

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Definition of CPA vs. accountant

Here's an explanation of the roles of CPA vs. accountant to help you learn more:

What is a CPA?

A chartered professional accountant or certified public accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has earned a professional designation for accounting provided by CPA Canada. CPAs can work in various industries to help with the accounting and financial needs of public businesses, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and educational institutions. Primary duties for a CPA include:

  • providing financial counselling

  • performing and documenting financial audits

  • tax planning

  • domestic and foreign accounting

  • submitting financial reports and analyses

Many CPAs begin their careers as an accountant and work to gather the experience, knowledge and qualifications necessary to earn this designation. As a CPA, you may work independently or have a higher level of influence in your role. These individuals ultimately aim to provide accurate and helpful accounting and financial work for an organization with a high level of training, experience and professionalism.

Related: What Does a CPA Do? (With Salary and Requirements)

What is an accountant?

An accountant is a financial expert who works to complete, monitor and improve an organization's operations by conducting various financial duties, such as reports and analyses. The role of an accountant doesn't require you to complete any specific certification or achievement, such as the CPA designation. In the role, you may work with other senior-level financial experts or operate as part of a team of accountants to ensure proper practices. As an accountant, daily tasks and duties may include:

  • reconciling bank and credit card accounts

  • coordinating and completing financial audits

  • analyzing and reporting financial status

  • documenting transactions

  • overseeing tax planning and payments

Accountants may work as part of an organization's accounting or financial team to document and analyze financial transactions and processes. These individuals work together to improve the company's operations. As an accountant, you can find a role in a variety of fields and work with other experts to develop accurate and insightful financial records and strategies.

Related: 13 Types of Accountants and What They Do

Differences between CPA vs. accountant

While a CPA and an accountant have many similar duties and often work in the same industries or departments, the two roles also include many key differences. Here are some ways the career paths and roles of a CPA and an accountant differ:


Earning the CPA designation requires candidates to pursue and complete a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related area, such as math, economics or business. This degree serves as a prerequisite qualification for anyone interested in the CPA training programs and certifications. During your undergraduate education, you may also work to meet the benchmarks outlined in the CPA Competency Map. These requirements outline the grades and courses required during the bachelor's program for individuals hoping to achieve the status of a CPA.

As an accountant, employers also require you to earn a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related subject. Depending on the industry you plan to work in or the exact role you decide to pursue, you may also benefit from adding specialization to your degree, such as business, communication, sales, or economics. Common undergraduate courses for accountants provide skills and knowledge of tax regulations, budget analysis, financial reporting, and auditing practices.

Related: What to Know About Becoming an Accounting Major (With FAQs)


The main difference between a CPA and an accountant is the achievement of a CPA certification. After your initial undergraduate education, you can enroll in the CPA Professional Education program. This program offers a one- or two-year part-time course with a minimum of six modules that you can pursue while working as an accountant or in another related role. At the end of this program, candidates require a passing grade on the Common Final Examination and 30 months of supervised work experience to achieve the official title and certification of a CPA.

Most employers looking to hire an account have no standard certification requirements. You may choose to pursue a certification related to the field or industry of your desired role. Having these certifications can improve your application and help distinguish you as a knowledgeable and experienced candidate. You may also work as an accountant while enrolled in the CPA Professional Education program to gain experience as you pursue the qualifications of a CPA.

Related: How to Become a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) with Salary


While a CPA and an accountant practice many of the same skills and processes, their responsibilities may differ. The greater experience and education of a CPA make them more qualified for high-level responsibilities such as tax accounting, internal audits, budget consultations and account maintenance. They may also work with greater independence to make decisions or provide consultation to executives within an organization. Generally, financial processes that involve government agencies, such as tax accounting and audits, may require the accountant to hold a CPA designation.

An accountant can handle a variety of financial documents and decisions for an organization. Similar to a CPA, they may work on tax documents, budget projections and financial analysis. As an accountant, you may also work to create and maintain financial reports. In this role, it's common to work as part of a team or function under the supervision of a CPA or other senior-level accountant. Your exact duties and level of independence can vary according to your employer, experience, and qualifications.

Related: Accountant Resume Objective (with Examples)

Work environment

Both a CPA and an accountant can work in a variety of industries and businesses. Many organizations require accounting experts to manage and improve their spending, revenues and reports. Both roles typically include a standard work week, with most candidates pursuing full-time positions. You may also spend the majority of your time in an office setting. A CPA often has greater independence and flexibility in their work, while an accountant likely operates as part of a team and follows the direction or supervision of others in the workplace. Common industries and work environments for CPAs and accountants include:

  • health care

  • educational institutions

  • real estate

  • government agencies

  • retail businesses

Related: How to Work in a Team Environment (with Benefits and Steps)

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Tips for becoming a CPA or accountant

Here are some additional tips you can take to pursue a career as a CPA or accountant and determine which career path works best for you:

  • Consider your options. If you are interested in accounting or financial careers, you may have a variety of options, including CPA, CFA, CA and private accounting. Compare each option to determine which certification or roles align with your abilities and desired duties.

  • Pursue a specialization. Many employers look for candidates who have an advanced understanding of the organization's specific processes or industry. Consider earning a certification or degree in a specialized area to increase your knowledge and qualifications in your preferred field.

  • Ask experts for advice. When deciding whether to pursue a CPA certification or work as an accountant, talk to an expert in the field to get an idea of the process and how it can influence your career. You can ask them to describe their experience with the CPA process or get advice about passing the exam and courses.

  • Maintain your knowledge. Once you have earned a position, whether as a CPA or an accountant, you can continue to pursue educational courses or seminars to maintain and update your knowledge of the industry and accounting practices.

Related: How to Write an Effective CPA Resume (With an Example)

Please note that none of the companies, institutions, or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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