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A basic guide to Accounting qualifications

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In the UK, anyone can technically call themselves an accountant - whether they have a professional qualification or not. This makes the letters after their name incredibly important - they indicate if they're a chartered accountant. Yet unlike doctors or solicitors, there are various institutions with which you can train and thus multiple acronyms which prove you are qualified.

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What are the different accounting qualifications?

Here are three key professional qualifications providing routes into the wonderful world of accounting: ACA, ICASACCA and CIMA. Each are globally-recognised, take three to five years to complete and are normally undertaken in conjunction with your graduate job.

If your head is in a spin with acronyms, let us make life easier by highlighting the key differences between these three qualifications.

Accountant giving a speech

ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant)

This is the professional qualification from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW), globally-recognised as a premier business diploma. ICAEW counts 140,000 members and students in 160 countries.

In order to start your ACA qualification, you must enter into a training agreement with an authorised employer. You then have five years in which to complete the course, taking on 450 days of relevant work experience while you study.

Once you've completed your training, you will be a chartered accountant and can pursue a career with any accountancy firm, including those in audit. You could also join a private or public sector organisation, or you could even start your own practice.

The ACA in a nutshell

  • The first six exams you sit are the certificate level exams. These are completed between September and December of your first year. They are computer based, which are mostly multiple choice. You receive the results the following day.
  • The following six are professional level, which you sit between September and December of your second year.
  • In your final year, you sit the advanced stage exams, usually in November. Both these, and the professional level exams are written exams, and you don’t receive results until around five weeks later.

First Year: Certificate Level

The first exams that you sit are the Accounting and Assurance exams. College starts in the second week after you join, and you will spend two weeks there before sitting the exams. These exams can be very challenging, meaning you have to put plenty of work in from the start.

College starts again around a month later, where you study Tax and Law as a home study module. Around a month later, you begin studying Management Information, and Business and Finance, again as home study. 

Three out of these six exams must be passed first time. Any unused credits are then carried forward into your second year. By mid-December, you will have completed the certificate level stage of the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountancy in England and Wales) ACA route.

Second Year: Professional Level

Second year tuition starts the following spring, where you will go to college for Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Audit and Assurance modules. Tuition for the third module, Tax and Compliance, takes place in July, with mock exams a couple of weeks later. You begin the revision phase for your three exams in mid-August, and have three weeks of college before you sit them in September.

After these exams, you have around a week until tuition starts for the next three modules, which you sit in December. These modules are: Business Planning Tax, Business Strategy and Financial Management. You spend three weeks in college for tuition, then around four weeks back at work, before returning for three weeks of revision in college. After you complete these exams, you will be part-qualified.

Third Year: Advanced Stage

College starts back in June/ August, ready for the final teaching phase of the ACA. The modules are: Corporate Reporting, Strategic Business Management and the Case Study. You sit these exams in November, having had three weeks of teaching and three weeks of revision. Once you have completed these exams, you will be exam qualified. 

Why choose this route: ACA accountants are in the highest demand


Who is ICAS?

ICAS is a global professional membership organisation and business network for Chartered Accountants. Made up of over 23,000 members and students, ICAS has formed a leading business community that spans industries and time zones and is packed with local heroes to corporate leaders. 

The ICAS Advantage

Founded in 1854, ICAS is the world’s first professional body of accountants. Valued by the world's top employers, the prestigious CA qualification from ICAS is your route to securing a future full of opportunity.

The CA qualification provides you with the highest level of training in accountancy and business. And with a new, enhanced syllabus with modules spanning everything from finance and accounting to broader business skills, training with ICAS gives you the variety and edge to be a step ahead of the rest.

You'll gain the acumen, entrepreneurial skills and commercial awareness to succeed wherever your ambition takes you and the face-to-face and online learning options let you study from anywhere in the UK.

To start your journey, you need to secure a training agreement with an authorised training employer. You’ll earn while you learn, achieving 450 days of practical experience and passing three stages of exams.

Why choose this route: As the only organisation in Europe to offer the prestigious CA qualification, over 83% of FTSE 100 organisations currently employ an ICAS CA.

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ACCA (Associate Chartered Certified Accountant)

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) has 586,000 members and students in 170 countries and is one of the largest and fastest-growing accounting qualification providers in the world.

You can take on this qualification as part of a training agreement or independently, and have up to ten years to pass your exams. You also need to acquire three years of relevant work experience to complete the qualification.

Once you become a chartered certified accountant with ACCA, the world is your oyster. You can work with accountancy firms, private or public sector organisations, or set up your own practice.

Why choose this route: The ACCA qualification isn’t necessarily tied into a training agreement so you can move between employers while training

CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountant)

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountant (CIMA) is a UK-based professional body focused on accounting for business. They offer training and qualifications in management accountancy and related subjects to their 203,000 members and students in 173 countries.

Like ACCA, you can work towards this qualification independently or through a training agreement with your employer. There is no limit on the training period, you just need to ensure you pass your exams and rack up three years of work experience.

As a CIMA management accountant, you are more likely to be employed within a business rather than at a specialised accountancy firm.

Why choose this route: The CIMA qualification is targeted at students who are aiming to become management accountants.

Whichever qualification you choose, qualified accountants are in high demand and whether you choose ACA, ACCA or CIMA - rest assured that you're making a smart choice.

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