CPA vs CA: Which path is right for you?

Want to start a career in finance but confused about the difference between a CPA and a CA? Find out which accounting qualification is right for you.

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Every business needs a good accountant, making it one of the most stable industries you can get into. But if you’d like the freedom to explore even more job opportunities in the future, then you should consider specialising as a certified practising accountant (CPA) or a chartered accountant (CA). 

CPAs and CAs do similar things with some big differences. To help you choose between the two professions, we’ve broken down what these specialists do every day, which governing bodies they answer to, and how you can get qualified.

What is a CPA accountant?

A certified practising accountant (CPA) is a highly qualified general accountant. They have a degree in accounting, business or finance, and have also completed the demanding CPA program, which is overseen by accounting body CPA Australia. 

Regarded as knowledgeable financial advisors and accounting specialists, CPAs help people identify their financial goals and develop strategies to ensure those aims become a reality. You’ll find CPAs in all levels of business, from start-ups to multinational corporations. 

Potential CPA jobs

A CPA accounting specialist has a broad range of accounting and finance skills when compared to an undergraduate-level accountant. They spend more time focusing on business management, like product costing and production, marketing, financial planning, and general financial analysis and advice. 

Completing the CPA program can help you go after a number of senior finance roles, including:  

  • Chief financial officer
  • Environmental accountant
  • Financial advisor
  • Financial investigator
  • Forensic accountant
  • International accounting specialist
  • Risk analyst
  • Strategic procurement manager

What is a chartered accountant?

A chartered accountant (CA) is a more technical tax and accounting specialist, often found in larger companies, professional industries and corporate firms. 

CAs earn their title by completing a relevant accounting or finance degree and a Graduate Diploma of Chartered Accounting. They also need to complete at least three years of supervised work, usually under a qualified chartered accountant. 

Although you may have the skills, you cannot call yourself a CA until you register with the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand (ICAANZ).

Typical roles for chartered accountants

Chartered accountants are always ready to tackle complex accounting issues, from taxation questions to exhaustive audits. They also keep the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) happy by making sure companies comply with financial laws and regulations.  

So what kind of roles can you expect to fill if you go down this route? Chartered accountants enjoy positions in: 

  • Auditing and assurance
  • Business services
  • Business valuations
  • Leadership (like chief financial officer)
  • Financial control

What’s the difference between a CPA and a CA?

CPAs and CAs are both highly qualified accountants that operate within a rigorous code of conduct.

Broadly speaking, CAs tend to have a greater focus on the technical aspects of accounting and a deeper understanding of complex taxation matters, while CPAs focus on accounting and business management as a whole. 

Specialisation 

CA

(Chartered accountant) 

CPA

(Certified practising accountant) 

Where to get more information Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) CPA Australia
What you need to get qualified

A Bachelor Degree in accounting (like a Bachelor of Accounting or Bachelor of Commerce)

 

A Graduate Diploma of Chartered Accounting 

 

At least three years of mentored practical experience

A Bachelor Degree or postgraduate award recognised by CPA Australia (like a Bachelor of Accounting). Or proof of prior experience

 

Completion of the CPA Australia program 

 

At least three years of mentored practical experience

Do you need a degree first? Yes. A CAANZ requires an accredited degree or qualification No. You can take the CPA Australia foundation exam
What you'll be studying

Accounting systems and processes

Financial accounting and reporting

Audit and assurance

Business law

Economics

Finance and financial management

Management accounting

Quantitative methods

Tax

Information and communication technology

Business acumen

Accounting systems and processes

Financial accounting and reporting

Business law

Economics

Finance and financial management

Management accounting

Quantitative methods

Tax

Information and communications technology

Business acumen

 Benefits

International recognition

 

Career longevity in large financial organisations

 

A competitive advantage (specialised auditing and taxation skills)

International recognition

 

The all-rounder knowledge to move into financial management across small and large businesses

 

A higher salary

 

Is a CPA better than a CA?

Neither qualification is better than the other, but one may be more well-suited to your goals, depending on what kind of role you see yourself chasing in the future.

When deciding whether to pursue a CPA or CA qualification, it’s important to consider your skillset and where you see yourself in five-to-ten years’ time. What would you be doing in your ideal role?

If you’re more detail-oriented, and you like solving complicated financial issues, then a CA might be the right path for you. If you see yourself moving into management and driving a business’s overall financial success, then a CPA could be more your style. 

Having trouble deciding? Ask for help from our experienced team of student advisors

Is a CPA easier than a CA?

It depends on you. Soon-to-be chartered accountants will study at uni for a bit longer  before diving into full-time mentoring. Some people will find the coursework and accompanying expectations challenging, but studying online through Open Universities Australia does mean you get constant support too. 

Since CPAs complete their course outside of university, they may not get the same help. In fact, between 27 and 56 percent of CPA candidates failed their professional exams in 2016. Sure, the data is a little older, but we can extrapolate the level of difficulty! Who knows, you may thrive outside of the predictable flow of uni work. 

If you prefer more guidance, you can choose to enrol in an online Master of Professional Accounting at the same time you complete your CPA program.

This qualification is developed with the support of CPA Australia, so your tutors will cover the material you need to know to pass each CPA subject. Plus, you’ll walk away with a competitive postgraduate qualification at the end of it, which is definitely nothing to scoff at.

No matter how you slice it, both paths require significant time, energy and commitment. Our advice? Don’t pursue what is easy, go after whatever will get you closer to your goals!

CA vs CPA salary in Australia

Both CAs and CPAs are highly respected jobs and can stand to earn a decent income in Australia. Take a look at the average salaries for both roles below and start plotting out what comes next.

Average CPA salary in Australia*
 Graduate level  $51,000 per year 
 Median $71,000 per year
 Senior level $103,000 per year
Average CA salary in Australia*
Graduate level $53,000 per year
Median $71,000 per year
Senior level $106,000 per year

*Salaries are correct at the time of writing (14/10/2021), taken from Payscale.com—Certified Public Accountant and Chartered Accountant.


Interested in applying for a business degree? Reach out today and an expert student advisor will take you through your options.