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What is a CPA (Certified Public Accountant)?

By D Frank
Updated May 16, 2024
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While a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is always an accountant, not all accountants are CPAs. To become one, an accountant must take and pass a series of rigorous tests administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. A number of US states also require these individuals to pass state exams as well. Accordingly, there are a number of accountants who never pass the exam and, though they can perform a variety of accountancy chores, they are not allowed to perform certain tasks that only someone who is certified can do.

These accounting professionals handle a variety of jobs and tasks. They offer basic income tax preparation and advice for a range of clients including individuals, small businesses and corporations. Many perform basic business record keeping, auditing and consulting work. To maintain their license, they must take 120 hours of continuing education courses every three years in order to stay abreast of changes in their profession.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers opportunities to people with this certification. In fact, to be considered for a position with the FBI, an applicant generally must be either an attorney or a CPA. Many other federal and state government agencies offer positions for those in this profession, as do corporations and small businesses alike. In such areas, these individuals hold positions as controllers, chief financial officer (CFO) and even chief executive officer (CEO).

One of the more important roles CPAs can perform is that of a consultant. In this role, the accountant may find himself researching a number of ways to save a corporation or small business money or developing financial plans that allow the business or corporation to look attractive to investors. Like lawyers, they are bound by a code of ethics, and they must give clients good, sound ethical advice. When they stray from their code of ethics, financial collapse can be the end result — as in the Enron scandal, where a number of corporate executives and CPAs from Arthur-Anderson, a well-known accounting firm, were indicted for illegal and unethical accounting practices.

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Discussion Comments

By anon320830 — On Feb 19, 2013

The work of a CPA is anything but basic! That's like saying the CPA exam is a basic test. It is complex and so is the work of a CPA.

By anon305066 — On Nov 24, 2012

Where is the CPA placed in the signature and name line? CPA, John Smith or John Smith, CPA?

By enith1234 — On Nov 14, 2012

I know of a friend who lives in Gambia. She wants to do CPA online. What steps must she follow?

By anon138357 — On Dec 31, 2010

i am about to begin my second year in college and i am in the finance section and i want to become a cpa after finishing my study in the college. I want to know how the cpa would help me in my future and what should i do to become one. please if there is anyone who can help by answering my questions...

By anon92259 — On Jun 27, 2010

I'm about to begin my first year of college. Rather going in not knowing what course I would like to follow, I would like to go into my first year somewhat knowing what I would like to begin my career in.

I have looked in many different branches of careers that have caught my attention. I am just wondering if anyone could give me any information on how good the course is in general, how many years it would take for me to obtain a masters, and an average of how much a starting salary could be for a CPA.

It would be great if anyone could help me out with this information.

By anon91330 — On Jun 21, 2010

actually, i want to do c.p.a after my bba and c.s. So can c.p.a be done after b.b.a or not?

By brscpa — On Sep 09, 2008

Hello anon4604. More information is needed to answer your question accurately. For example, does your friend work as a subcontractor or employee? Did the business owner require the submission of form W4 or W9? Is there an agreement for an hourly rate, or is the pay by the job/project?

By brscpa — On Sep 09, 2008

In the state of Texas all Accountants are CPAs. Non CPA persons are not allowed to refer to themselves as Accountants in advertising etc...

Just one of the examples of the different rules between states.

By anon4604 — On Oct 24, 2007

I have a friend who works for a company who pays cash. A few months ago they decided to take out taxes. The thing with that is, how do she know what is being taking out of her if there are no pay stubs? And is it unlawful to take taxes and still pay cash? Also can a certified account set a tax percentage for a business owner?

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