California CPA Exam & License Requirements

Updated: September 15, 2021 You’re our #1 priority.
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If you’re interested in an accounting career, becoming a CPA is an excellent career choice. It’s the best way to find employment at the top accounting firms and start making more money. 

However, CPA requirements can be very strict— and each state has a specific set of requirements.

One of the best states for CPAs is California. Thanks to having a huge population, there’s a naturally high demand for anyone with this license. In fact, the state’s Employment Development Department predicts that job outlook for accountants in California will increase by 10% over the next five years.

Interested in getting started? I’ve gathered everything you need to know about getting a CPA license in California. That way you can start working on these prerequisites and get your California CPA license as soon as possible.

Let’s get started!

Education CPA Requirements

California has strict education requirements for anyone interested in becoming a CPA. To start, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field. 

But what is a related field? Here’s how the state decides:

According to the California Board of Accountancy (CBA), you must complete 24 units of accounting classes, 24 units of business subjects, and 150 units of any other subjects. If your degree program meets this criteria, you’re qualified to sign up for the CPA exam once you’ve earned your Bachelor’s.

It will take you a minimum of 4 years to meet the educational requirements to take the CPA exam in California. However, you should anticipate the possibility that you’ll need more time to get all of the class credits you need. After all, only 44% of college students get their degree in just 4 years.

Continuing Education

Even after passing the exam and becoming a CPA, every state has continuing education requirements. California has an especially stringent set of requirements— CPAs must complete at least 80 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits in the 2 year period before their license expires.

You must complete a minimum of 20 hours during each year of the renewal period. Additionally, at least 12 of those hours must focus on technical subject matter. You must also complete 4 hours of ethics courses, and you’re required to enroll in a 2 hour board approved regulatory review course if more than six years have passed since you gained your license.

The remaining 40 hours of continuing education can be completed in any qualifying technical or non-technical subject matter that you choose. Because of this, we recommend enrolling for an online CPE course to earn these credit hours as quickly and easily as possible.

Work CPA Requirements

Unlike their education requirements, the work experience requirement for California CPAs is fairly low. You only need one year of general accounting experience in order to sit for the CPA exam— but bear in mind that your work must be supervised by a CPA with an active license. Any other work isn’t eligible to meet this requirement.

You can earn qualifying experience in the public sector, private sector, or through government work. Just as long as a CPA supervises you, you’ll be good to go!

CPA Exam Details

Once your exam application has been accepted, it’s time to start planning ahead. Passing the CPA exam involves completing 4 tests with a minimum score of 75 on each. These are the Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG) exams.

Each test is made up of 5 testlets comprising both multiple choice questions and task based simulations. you’ll have 4 hours to complete each test with one 15 minute break that stops the timer. You also have the option of taking 3 optional breaks, but none of them stop the test timer.

Make sure to check the AICPA website for a more detailed breakdown of each test!

California Professional Ethics Exam

The CPA exam isn’t the only test you need to take to become a CPA in California. This state requires you to also pass an ethics exam, which is based on the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct, the California Accountancy Act, and Accounting Rules and Regulations.

Here’s the good news: this test isn’t nearly as difficult as the CPA exam. You’ll have unlimited time to complete 50 multiple choice questions. But you should still take it seriously, since you’ll only pass if you receive a grade of 90% or better— you can only miss 5 questions. However, you have 6 attempts to pass the exam and you receive instant results. That way you can immediately shore up knowledge on the areas you struggled with.

The ethics exam can be ordered online from CALCPA in both online and in text format. These cost $175 and $195 respectively. You can also purchase an ethics exam prep course from them for $50, but that may not be necessary to pass.

California Exam Fees

According to the California CPA exam handbook, the initial application for the CPA exam costs $100, and re-enrollment costs $50. However, this only applies if you’ve failed and can prove that you’ve been previously approved to sit for the CPA exam in California.

Bear in mind that the application fee isn’t the only one that you’ll be paying. Each of the 4 sections of the CPA exam costs an additional $224.99. All payments are made to NASBA and must be paid before you can schedule an exam. 

Once you add everything up, you’ll be paying roughly $1000 for the CPA exam. Your application will be considered abandoned if you fail to pay the fees within 90 days of applying for the test. If that happens, you will not receive a refund for what you’ve already paid.

Keep in mind that you’ll also spend money outside of test fees. This can include transportation costs to get to the testing center, but the most obvious expense is a CPA prep course. Be sure to budget for both of these expenses accordingly!

License Costs

The last important payment you’ll need to make involves your licensing fee. The California Board of Accountancy charges a $250 license fee, with an extra $49 for a hard copy fingerprint processing fee. This only applies to people who live out of state but have chosen to get a California CPA license.

You’ll also be charged whenever you need to renew your license. This fee is also $250 and occurs biennially. If you’re late to file a renewal, you’ll be charged an additional $125 delinquency fee. Make sure you apply on time so you can avoid the extra charge!

This likely won’t come up until later in your career, but there’s also a fee for registering an accountancy firm with the California Board of Accountancy. Applications for an accountancy corporation and an accountancy partnership both cost $400.

Lastly, there’s a fee involved in changing from an active to retired status. The application for retired status costs $75. If you decide to resume work, the application to request restoration to active status only costs $50. Despite that, you should still be sure of your choice before retiring so you can avoid any extra fees.

After the Exam

Once you’ve become a certified CPA, it’s time to start looking for a job. Luckily, California has a high demand for CPAs and the pay is excellent. According to Payscale, California is number 4 on the list of the highest paying states for CPAs. That’s because the average pay for a CPA there is around $75,000 a year.

Currently, the 3 best cities for finding work as a CPA are San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Los Angeles. CPA jobs in those cities typically pay almost $10,000 more than the state average per year. Plus, San Francisco in particular has a very active CPA marker. There’s lots of opportunity for work and upward mobility in that area.

But it’s important to remember that salary isn’t everything when it comes to working. It may be best to try and work in an area with a low cost of living. Doing so can lead to you spending far less and ending up with more money than some higher paying areas.

California CPA Exam FAQs

Q: How much do CPAs make in California?

A: California CPAs make an average of $75,000 a year. However, this can vary quite a bit among different cities in California— most of the high-paying jobs can be found in areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Make sure to check with Payscale for more specific information.

Q: How much does it cost to become a CPA in California?

A: Becoming a CPA can be fairly expensive. You’ll need to pay money for an application before paying for each of the 4 tests you need to take. Even getting the license itself afterward comes with an additional cost. In total, you’ll be paying $1250 to become a CPA.

Q: How do you become a CPA in California without an accounting degree?

A: Unfortunately, an accounting degree is a hard requirement for becoming a CPA in California. There’s currently no way for you to become one without completing a bachelor’s degree that meets the specific credit requirements outlined by the California Board of Accountancy.

It can take several weeks for your application to be processed so don’t waste that valuable time waiting to hear back from your state board.  If you start studying now you will get a nice jump start on the material and will be better prepared to pass your first CPA exam!