Comparing CMA vs. CPA: Which Qualification Fits You Best?

In this article, we delve into what each certification entails, the key differences, the exam difficulty, career opportunities and cost considerations.

Are you drawn to the intricacies of becoming a certified management accountant, where data analysis and financial leadership intertwine? Or are you captivated by the world of certified public accountants who focus on external reporting, auditing, and compliance?

CPA vs. CMA is one of those topics constantly debated by students wanting a lucrative and fulfilling career in the business environment.  Accounting certifications are varied in nature and both the CPA and CMA designation are sought after as a globally recognized certification.

In this article, we delve into what each certification entails, the key differences, the exam difficulty, career opportunities and cost considerations. 

Stick with us as we go on this journey together, and hopefully when we reach our destination, you will have made a decision.

What does a management accountant do?

Management accountants are involved in the financial planning activities of the company.  They will participate in the following:

  • Forecasting and Planning
  • The control of company resources, including human resources
  • Budgeting, financial reporting and analysis, and financial interpretation
  • Financial accounting functions, such as the analysis of financial statements and the audit of internal statements
  • Special studies, projects and funding
  • Taxation
  • Strategic business decisions such as expansion and acquisition

One of the certifications that prepare students for a role in management accounting is the CMA certification. This qualification allows more specialisation than the CPA, which is a broader professional qualification.

Students in the UK might be interested to read about the CIMA vs CMA certification to understand your options more clearly. 

What do certified public accountants do?

The CPA helps individuals, businesses and large corporations to meet their financial goals by monitoring the financial transactions conducted on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis and then preparing and submitting financial reports.  This accounting professional is involved in:

  • Maintain and organize financial records by using technology
  • Consolidate financial activities in the company and provide a picture of the financial health and soundness of a business
  • Budgeting 
  • Complete individual and business tax returns
  • Develop and implement different accounting policies and procedures to ensure compliance and regulatory needs are met

One of the certifications that can be obtained by a prospective certified public accountant is the CPA certification.

The CPA focuses on accounting principles and regulations of the US market, however, if you have a more global perspective in mind, an equivalent is the ACCA qualification.

A breakdown of the two certifications

Courtesy: IMA

Certified Management Accountant

Provided by the Insititute of Management Accountants (IMA), the US CMA is a popular option for those wanting to specialise in data science.  The IMA introduced this aspect of accounting into their course in 2022, and it has increased the number of students signing up for this designation as a result.


Eligibility for US CMA requires you to have a bachelor's degree or equivalent as approved by the IMA. The CMA makes a concession for those in the process of completing their qualification at the time of registration - they have 7 years to finish the degree but will not receive the CMA designation before doing so.   

CMA exam structure

The qualification is divided into two parts, covering 12 competencies in total:

Part I - Financial planning, performance and analytics

  • External financial reporting decisions
  • Planning, budgeting and forecasting
  • Performance management
  • Cost management
  • Internal controls
  • Analytics and Technology

Part II - Strategic Financial Management

  • Financial analysis
  • Strategic management
  • Corporate finance
  • Decision analysis
  • Risk management
  • Investment decisions
  • Professional ethics

CMA exams consist of MCQs and essay questions. You will be provided with a real-life scenario and will have to produce the required outcomes and show calculations.

Good tuition providers will help you get through both exams within 12 months.  Chose one that has a proven track record and will provide testimonials from other students that have successfully passed their exams. 

Global recognition

One of the advantages of CMA is that it enjoys global recognition. It is also accepted by the big four accounting companies worldwide. Increasing demand for this qualification is being seen in the Middle East, India, China and the US.

The IMA provides testimonials of past students to encourage future accounting students.

Career Opportunities

The CMA designation opens up many doors in the finance industry.  CMAs are well suited to roles such as CFO, financial analyst, cost accountant, and corporate controller.

Courtesy: AICPA and CIMA

Certified Public Accountant

Endorsed by the American Institute of Public Accountants in conjunction with the CIMA, this qualification is recognized as giving students critical skills and knowledge needed to compete in the accounting industry. However, the focus of this qualification is North America.


To become a licensed CPA, you must have a completed bachelor's degree and a minimum of 150 credit hours of coursework. Your major does not have to be in accounting and finance, but you will have to complete the appropriate accounting credits before being awarded a CPA license.

Adding a master’s degree could boost your chances of passing the CPA exams since the CPA Journal reports that the chances of first-time takers were greatly increased by a master’s degree.  58% of graduate degree holders vs 48% of bachelor degree holders passed the exam. 

CPA exam structure

The CPA exam has a reputation for its toughness and rigour.  It consists of four sections:

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)

The CPA exam utilizes MCQs, task-based questions and written communication tasks to assess the student's comprehension of accounting principles and practices.  Financial statement analysis is a popular choice amongst CPA examiners.

Global recognition

While the CPA qualification originates in the United States, its reputation extends globally. Many international companies value the CPA designation for its rigorous standards and comprehensive coverage of accounting principles. However, it's important to note that the CPA licensure process and recognition of the CPA title can vary from country to country, 

Career Opportunities

Diverse career paths are open to CPA accounting professionals. CPAs are prominently recognized in public accounting firms, where they engage in auditing, taxation, and advisory services for clients. Additionally, CPAs can pursue roles such as financial analysts, tax consultants, internal auditors, forensic accountants, and even Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in various industries. 

Key differences: CMA vs CPA

This table provides a clear visual representation of the key differences between the CMA and CPA qualifications, allowing prospective students to make an informed decision based on their career goals and aspirations.



Primary focus

Internal management accounting and decision-making

External financial reporting, auditing, taxation, and compliance.


Diverse industries, including manufacturing, technology, and healthcare.

Public accounting firms, corporate finance, government, and nonprofit organizations.

Career path

Management accounting roles, financial analysis, strategic decision-making.

Public accounting, auditing, tax consulting, corporate finance, and various accounting roles.

Exam emphasis

Scenario-based questions, and practical application of concepts.

Comprehensive coverage of accounting topics.

Certificate maintenance

Continuing education and professional development.

Continuing Professional Education (CPE) requirements.

Ethical standards

Guided by the IMA's Statement of Ethical Professional Practice.

Adherence to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Code of Professional Conduct.

Courtesy: Canva/GettyImages

At this point you may have read enough to make your decision, in which case our team looks forward to further interaction with you.    

However, if you’re still not sure, we’re going to examine certification requirements and cost considerations more thoroughly.  After that, we’ll end with some decision-making factors.

Let’s continue for a few more minutes. 

Certification requirements and maintenance

Both the CMA and the CPA are committed to continual professional development. To maintain certification, you will need to comply with certain development activities and keep licensing fees up-to-date.

CMA certification requirements 

CMAs are required to complete a certain number of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours annually. These activities can include attending conferences, workshops, online courses, and other educational events that contribute to enhancing your skills and staying current in the field. 

Adhering to the IMA's ethical guidelines, including the Statement of Professional Responsibilities Ethics, is also vital.

CPA certification requirements 

CPAs must adhere to stringent continuing education courses set by state boards of accountancy. The specific number of hours and subjects required may vary by jurisdiction. The CPE activities can encompass a wide range of topics, from technical accounting, tax implications, corporate governance economic concepts and auditing to ethics and professional conduct. 

Additionally, CPAs are expected to adhere to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Code of Professional Conduct, ensuring integrity, objectivity, and professionalism in their practice.

Why is this important?

The accounting and finance profession is ever-evolving, driven by fast-paced changes in technology and regulation. Maintenance ensures that accounting certifications remain of a high standard and quality, providing students with cutting-edge information that is desperately needed to respond to challenges in the workplace.

Keeping up with CPE requirements will provide you with the latest knowledge, skills, and ethical practices.  This will reflect well on your own career and also the credibility of the industry. 

You get an opportunity to reflect your personal commitment to professional growth and ethical standards. 

Cost considerations

This table gives you an idea of the different costs associated with these qualifications.  It is best to visit the IMA and AICPA websites for up-to-date fees.  



Entrance fees


$50-$200 (varies by state)

Exam fees

$460 for Part I and $460 for Part II

$210 for each of the four exams. A $75 registration fee is payable for each exam. 

Course materials

As per tuition provider fees

As per tuition provider fees

Membership fees

$45 - $260 (student-professional)

$50 - $500 (student - professional)

CPE - $1000 a year

To give you a rough idea of the total cost of CPA and CMA exams:

CMA - $3 000* over a 12 month period, with a completed bachelor’s degree

CPA - $4 500* over a 12 month period with a completed bachelor’s degree

*collected from various sites at the time of writing the article and includes the cost of a REVIEW COURSE which most students take to prepare for the exams.

Courtesy: Canva/GettyImages

Decision-Making Time

Choosing between CMA and CPA is a personal choice based on a variety of factors such as:

  • Long-term career goals
  • Industry focus
  • Geographic aspirations
  • Lifestyle and work-life balance
  • Time constraints
  • Cost considerations

Let’s take a deep dive into some of these considerations:

Long-term goals

Begin by reflecting on the type of work that resonates with you. If you're drawn to roles involving management accounting, financial analysis, and strategic decision-making, the CMA qualification could be the right fit. 

On the other hand, if you're intrigued by external reporting, auditing, taxation, and compliance matters, the CPA qualification might be more aligned with your interests.

Industry focus

CMAs often excel in industries such as manufacturing, technology, healthcare, and beyond. CPAs, with their comprehensive accounting skills, thrive in public accounting firms, corporate finance, government, and nonprofit organizations. 

Geographic aspirations

You may have your sights set on a particular country you want to work in.  If you want to work internationally, the US CMA qualification's global recognition might be appealing. CMAs are sought after by multinational corporations due to their proficiency in management accounting practices that transcend borders. 

On the other hand, if your career goals are primarily anchored in the United States, the CPA qualification holds significant value due to its deep-rooted presence in the US accounting landscape.

Lifestyle and work-life balance

CMAs may find themselves in management roles that require strategic thinking and decision-making, whereas CPAs might be involved in audit seasons or tax deadlines. Reflect on the work environment that resonates with your personal preferences and how each qualification's demands align with your desired work-life balance.

At this point, we’ve thrown everything at you regarding CMA and CPA.  If you haven’t been able to make a decision, perhaps these two qualifications are not quite what you’re looking for?  In that case, you can hop on over to our website and have a look at CIMA and ACCA as alternatives. 

If you have made your decision, go on over and take a look anyway. Don’t forget that your choice of tuition provider is going to make a big difference to your overall results.

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