How to become a CPA in California - Step by Step

Shamal Asnani
August 11, 2022

If you’re wondering things like “how do I become a CPA in California,” or “what are the requirements for a CPA in California,” then look no further. In this article we are going to walk you through the step by step process for becoming a CPA in California.

If you’re wondering things like “how do I become a CPA in California,” or “what are the requirements for a CPA in California,” then look no further.

For more information on “what is a CPA?” check out our article on the subject here.

In this article we are going to walk you through the step by step process for becoming a CPA in California.

Before we start, AICPA has a great website called “This Way to CPA” with a lot of helpful links, check it out here!

Step 1 –Obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step is the longest as it requires on average approximately 4 years to accomplish this task.

The California Board of Accountancy doesn’t require a specific type of Bachelor’s degree, but there are other requirements that may determine if your Bachelor’s degree was an efficient choice or not.

If your end goal is to become a CPA then look for universities that have good business and accounting programs. The extra help a good program can offer will offer a good competitive advantage as you get started in your career.

Step 2 – Minimum Study units

In addition to having a bachelor’s degree, you’ll have to have a total of 150 semester units.

Since the typical Bachelor’s degree is only 120 semester units, you’ll need to take some additional classes, which typically are in pursuit of a Master’s degree.

The average master’s degree will require somewhere around ~45-60 hours of credit, so the additional 30 you’ll need to sit for your CPA license can put you close to halfway there!

Step 3 – Study Unit Breakdown

150 semester credits is a lot, but it gets a bit more in depth than that. The California Board of Accountancy also requires specific studies in that time period. Specifically:

  • 24 hours studying generic accounting subjects
  •      These are broad/generic accounting topics
  • 24 hours studying business related subjects
  • 20 hours studying specific accounting subjects
  •      See breakdown of these hours here.
  • 10 hours studying ethics
  •      See breakdown of these hours here.

For a quick overview, check out this tip sheet put out by the California Board of Accountancy.

Step 4 – Taking the Exams

Getting the required semester units and degree is only the first part of the CPA process. You’ll also need to pass two different exams:

  • Uniform CPA Exam
  • Professional Ethics Exam for CPAs

Uniform CPA Exam (the real monster)

For general questions on the Exam, check out this FAQ from the California Board of Accountancy, but I’llput the important information below.

This test is comprised of 4 different parts:

  • Auditing– 4 hours
  • Business Environment and Concepts – 3 hours
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting – 4 hours
  • Regulation– 3 hours

Each exam is taken separately and all four sections have to be passed.

You may take them in any order, but the following constraints apply:

  • You have 1 year to make CPA exam section selection once application is approved
  • 90 days to make payment for all sections selected once payment coupon is received
  • 9 months to schedule testing dates and sit for all sections listed
  • 18 months to earn credit for the remaining three sections from the first passed section

If you fail any section you may retake it again.

Testing is done in continuous windows where you can schedule times that work best for you and take the test at your convenience (mostly).

Check out the CPA Exam Quick Tips here.

Professional Ethics Exam for CPAs (considered mostly a lay-up)

For an FAQ on the ethics exam, check out this article.

The basic details are below:

  • 50 multiple choice questions
  • No time limit
  • Must pass with a 90% or higher (can’t miss more than 5 questions)
  • Up to 6 attempts included from date of purchase, but must be taken within a year
  • Results valid for up to 2 years
  • Instant exam results

General Advice

Don’t get discouraged if it takes a few tries to pass any of the different CPA exam sections. These tests are notoriously difficult depending on the section you’re taking. Stay diligent and you’ll accomplish your goals!

Consider using one of the many study guide materials out there like Becker, etc.

CPA Study guides overview

Becker CPA Study Guide

Step 5 – Experience Requirements

The final step and requirement to get your CPA in California is to have one year of general accounting experience supervised by a CPA with an active license.

This can be prior to, concurrent with, or after you complete the other steps.

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