EA vs CPA: which is better?
When you’re contemplating whether to earn the enrolled agent (EA) designation or the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification, you need to know the answer. Tax Preparers looking to further their careers have a number of options open to them, and these are two of the most popular. Which one you choose will depend on your areas of interest and expertise. Additionally, you will need to decide how much time, money, and energy you have to put into meeting the requirements.
When it comes to accounting credentials, CPA and EA both are good options. They each have their pros and cons as well as distinct effects on your long-term career.
To help you make the decision, let’s take a look at the difference between CPA and EA. Here are some questions we’ll answer about these two designations:
- What does EA stand for? What does CPA stand for?
- What’s the difference between a CPA and an EA?
- How difficult is the EA exam compared to the CPA exam?
- What can a CPA do that an EA can’t?
- Which is better: CPA or EA?
What Is an Enrolled Agent? What Is a CPA?
EAs, or enrolled agents, are tax preparers authorized to represent taxpayers before the IRS. Their clients are individuals, partnerships, corporations, estates, trusts, and any entities with tax-reporting requirements.
CPAs, or Certified Public Accountants, are licensed individuals with the statutory privilege to sign an audit report. They can prepare financial accounts, provide audit services, and offer tax expertise. Typically, their clients are businesses that need both accounting and tax services.
One other important distinction separates the two designations: licensure. The CPA certification is also a license to practice, whereas the EA is simply a designation, not a license. Consequently, enrolled agents do not receive an EA license or an enrolled agent license to practice. But while the EA certification doesn’t sound quite as prestigious as the CPA license, don’t fret: people recognize and greatly respect enrolled agents. Sometimes, EAs receive more respect than CPAs when it comes to tax matters.
EA vs CPA Exam and Credential Requirements
The steps to becoming a CPA or an EA are quite similar. As you’ll see, the basic steps are the same, but the manner in which you fulfill the requirements differ. Let’s take a look at the CPA vs EA requirement differences.
Qualify for the Exam
To become an enrolled agent, you must either take the EA exam, also known as the Special Enrollment Exam (SEE), or have previous work experience at the IRS. Passing the exam is much easier once you have several years of tax experience. However, there is no prerequisite for taking the exam. In fact, you can schedule and sit for the exam as soon as you obtain a Personal Tax Identification Number (PTIN), even if you are still in college.
In contrast, sitting for the CPA Exam involves meeting an education requirement. Almost every state board of accountancy (the organizations that determine the CPA requirements) requires 150 credit hours of education to take the CPA Exam. In other words, this requirement is the equivalent of a master’s degree. Most state boards also prefer that degree to be in accounting.
Learn the Exam Content
The EA exam has three parts. Most people consider Part 1 (Individuals) and Part 3 (Representation, Practices, and Procedures) to be the easiest. In fact, some experienced tax professionals can pass these parts without much studying. But almost everyone must work hard to pass Part 2 (Businesses). So naturally, it has the reputation of being the hardest.
The CPA Exam has four parts, and the exam content is much, much broader. The CPA Exam section equivalent to the EA exam is Regulation (REG). Only around 70% of the REG material relates directly to the EA exam, while the rest covers other topics such as business law.
However, comparing the taxation section of REG to that of the EA exam reveals quite a lot of overlap. In fact, this shared content can help candidates pass both exams in time. If you start with the CPA Exam and struggle with the REG section, you can temporarily change course by passing the EA exam and earning the EA designation. Then, with your improved understanding of tax accounting, you can come back to REG, pass the CPA Exam, and, ultimately, get the CPA license as well.
Pass the Exam
As I said, the EA SEE exam has three parts. You can’t take the exam in March or April every year because the makers of the test are updating it. Otherwise, you can take the exam parts at any other time and in any order you like. You can take them hours, days, or months apart. Each exam part lasts a total of four hours, including a short break.
Overall, you must pass each exam part within a rolling two-year window. In case you fail an EA exam part, you can take each section a total of four times during a single testing window (May 1 of one year to February 28 of the next). You can pass the EA exam in a timely manner by studying with an EA review course and sticking to a study schedule.
The CPA Exam used to have a stricter timeline than the EA, with scheduling “windows” throughout the year. However, NASBA (the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy) now offers all four parts of the exam year-round with continuous scheduling. The only limit on availability is placed by the individual testing centers. This means that, if you fail one part, you have the option retake it sooner than you could before.
However, you still must pass all four parts of the CPA Exam within a rolling 18-month period. This time period begins as soon as you pass your first exam section. At that point, you have 18 months to pass the remaining three sections. If you don’t pass the remaining sections within this time, you will lose credit for the first section you passed. Accordingly, you must then pass that section and any other unpassed sections within 18 months of the time you passed your second section. With such tight deadlines, relying on a CPA review course and faithfully adhering to a consistent study schedule are even more critical for achieving CPA Exam success.
Fulfill the Remaining Requirements
If your path to the IRS enrolled agent credential runs through the EA exam, you don’t need to meet an experience requirement. You only need to pass the exam. Thankfully, you’ll receive your exam results immediately. And once you’ve passed, you can apply for enrollment by filling out Form 23. The processing of your application can take 60 days (or 90 to 120 days if you’re a former IRS employee). Additionally, as part of the evaluation of your enrollment application, the IRS will conduct a suitability test. This test will include a review of your personal tax compliance.
To finish the process of becoming a CPA after you’ve passed all four CPA Exam sections, you must acquire an additional 30 credit hours of education to fulfill the 150-hour requirement. Additionally, you must work in an accounting position for 1 to 2 years to meet the experience requirement.
All in all, while there may be exceptions to the rule, the CPA license generally has a much higher barrier of entry than the EA credential.
EA vs. CPA Exam Costs
To take the enrolled agent exam, you must pay a testing fee for each exam part. The exam has three parts, and the testing fee is $181.94, which comes to a total of $545.82. To pass the exam, you’ll also need to purchase an enrolled agent course, which provides study materials covering the exam content. The most popular EA course, Gleim EA Review, costs between $380 and $630, depending on your course package.
Finally, once you pass the EA exam and are ready to become an enrolled agent, you’ll have to pay the IRS $30 to complete the enrollment process. That’s a minimum total cost of about $950 to $1,200. Over the course of becoming an EA, you’ll also want to consider additional enrolled agent exam costs covering retakes, testing appointment reschedules, and continuing education courses.
Taking the CPA Exam is a bit more expensive. Firstly, the exam has more parts. Although specific costs vary by state, typically, you must pay $208.40 to sit for each part. If you pass each section on your first attempt, you still must pay a total of $833.60.
Another CPA Exam cost you must take into account is the application fee. You’ll have to pay this fee the first time you apply to your state board, and it ranges from $30 to $200 depending on the state board. There’s also a registration fee for each section of the exam, each time you take it. This fee typically runs from $30 to $150, and if you have to retake an exam section, you may have to pay it each time.
Using a review course is just as essential to passing the CPA Exam as it is the EA exam (if not more so), and CPA Exam prep is also pricier. The best CPA review courses will run you about $1,700 on average. After you pass the CPA Exam, you will probably also have to take the ethics exam, which usually costs $130. Finally, you must pay the CPA licensing fees, the mid-range of which comes to about $150. And yes, there are also a few other CPA Exam fees you’ll need to budget for depending on your situation and testing track record.
This chart presents the totals for the Enrolled Agent exam and the CPA Exam costs. Keep in mind these are minimum costs – they don’t take retakes or more expensive prep materials into account.
|Testing Fee (per part) x3
|Examination Fee (per part) x4
|Average EA Review Course
|Enrollment for Practice:
|Average CPA Review Course
Because the CPA Exam is so expensive to take, candidates usually invest quite a bit more in their review courses so that they are better able to pass the exam on the first attempt. CPA candidates usually choose a course like Becker CPA, Gleim CPA, Wiley CPAexcel, Roger CPA, Yaeger CPA, or Surgent CPA. Although these courses are expensive, savvy candidates can find discounts and promotional codes to reduce the costs. Therefore, we highly recommend candidates review the best CPA review discounts before purchasing their course as a way to keep more money in their pockets.
CPA and EA Exams: Which is Harder?
Most people who have taken both report that the CPA Exam is more difficult to pass than the EA exam. The reason for this is the amount of information both exams cover. EAs must be tax experts, so the SEE goes into great depth on tax matters. However, the CPA Exam covers four different subfields of accountancy. There is simply more material to study and learn.
Furthermore, the REG CPA Exam section questions don’t go into as much detail about tax as the EA exam questions, but they are harder, in part because the CPA Exam sections contain both multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations. The EA questions are more in-depth but less varied and complicated, so they are easier.
For a more detailed look at the EA versus CPA Exams, as well as a direct comparison of CMA vs CPA vs EA exams, check out our post on the difficulty of the EA exam.
EA Salary vs CPA Salary and Career Prospects
According to ZipRecruiter.com, enrolled agents in 2020 typically make between $47,000 and $65,000 a year. A CPA salary is usually between $58,000 and $79,000 per year. In general, CPAs earn more than EAs, and CPAs also benefit from increased earning potential as time goes on. However, enrolled agents have the opportunity to earn extra money during tax season. I have a reader who actually makes more during those few months than he usually earns for the year in retail.
As for employment situations, jobs for CPAs and EAs usually take place in different environments. Specifically, enrolled agents usually don’t work for a firm. They actually have their own clients and can, therefore, work at home with flexible hours. On the other hand, many CPAs start off in audit firms, but as they accumulate experience, they can launch their own practices and acquire their own clients.
From the perspective of the IRS, CPAs and EAs are on the same level. Both types of accountants can represent clients during an audit.
The EA vs CPA Value-Add to Clients
Both CPAs and EAs can provide superior services to clients. First, I’ll show you how EAs add value, and then I’ll reveal the ways in which CPAs assist their clients. You’ll need to decide for yourself which is a better fit for your skills and lifestyle.
The EA Advantage
Enrolled agents are tax specialists.
EAs work on taxes only. Therefore, they may have a tax specialization, such as tax preparation or tax resolution. For this reason, a CPA who specializes in tax should consider earning the EA so they can demonstrate their tax expertise.
The EA designation is a federal credential.
Since the IRS empowers enrolled agents with an unlimited right to practice on a federal level, enrolled agents can work with a client who may have filings across all states in the U.S.
Hiring an enrolled agent is more affordable than hiring a tax attorney.
Enrolled agents can often perform the same services as a tax attorney for a much lower price. For example, enrolled agents can represent their clients in civil resolution cases.
Taking the EA exam is faster and cheaper than taking the CPA Exam.
As you may recall, the EA exam has one fewer part (three total) than the CPA Exam (four). The EA exam also covers less overall material. Therefore, most candidates only need a few months to study for and pass the EA exam. In comparison, many people need 12-18 months to pass the CPA Exam. The less time you take to get the designation, the sooner you and your clients can enjoy your improved status with the IRS.
Additionally, as we saw above, the process of earning an EA designation is substantially less expensive upfront. And these costs don’t take into account the additional education requirements for a CPA.
The CPA Advantage
1. CPAs specialize in general accounting and sometimes tax as well.
A CPA’s expertise is based on accounting and auditing, but most CPAs provide tax filing services as well. This combination of skills is attractive to small businesses needing both audit and tax services, preferably coming from the same team.
2. CPAs can take a holistic approach to improved tax planning.
Hiring a CPA makes more sense for businesses because someone who “knows the numbers” can conduct better and more accurate tax planning.
3. CPAs often make more money than EAs.
Although your exact salary will depend on a number of factors including the state you live in, in general, CPAs tend to have higher salaries. This can balance out the initial expense of taking the CPA Exam.
EA or CPA: Which Will You Choose?
The job of an enrolled agent is not as well-known as that of a CPA. However, EAs are as good (if not better) at handling income tax matters. If you would like to specialize in income tax and desire the flexibility of working at home with your own clients, I encourage that you explore the EA path further.