How to become an accountant

By Robert Half on 23rd June 2017

Accountancy is a strong career choice for anyone with a head for figures. Those with careers in finance enjoy a much faster route to the top, with 52% of FTSE 100 CEOs having a background in finance and 27% of them holding ACA Chartered Accountancy qualifications.

Your first stop on the journey to become an accountant will be to decide which role you’d like to end up in long-term. Digitisation of the financial sector and the rise in FinTech means that there are even more career options out there for those with financial qualifications.

Whether you’re trying to find out how to become an accountant after college or just want a career change, here’s what you need to know about the various options on offer.

What qualifications do you need to become an accountant?

You can start studying to become an accountant as soon as you’ve left secondary school, although future employers often look for a history of experience and interests when hiring for finance roles.

There are a number of different accountancy qualifications which will help prepare you for a career in finance. Each option is best suited to specific roles and sectors within the industry and will provide a different answer to the question 'how long does it take to become an accountant?'. Which one you choose will be based on your long-term career ambitions and the specific area of business you’d like to work in.

ACA qualification – what you need to know

This ICAEW Chartered Accountant qualification is the most sought-after qualification by businesses. It is internationally recognised and has more than 147,000 members worldwide. ICAEW accountants are welcomed in every industry and have found their way onto the boards of 78% of FTSE 100 companies.

Accountants with ACA qualifications typically start the first two years of their career on a salary of £49,900 according to the ICAEW, which is the global average. You can train to become an accountant straight from school or after a university degree.

Which careers require an ACA qualification?

An ACA qualification is better suited to individuals who want to pursue a career specifically in accountancy. Having this particular qualification entitles professionals to operate their own accounting practice, too.

How do the ACA exams work?

The ACA exams consist of 15 modules designed to focus on the various aspects of accountancy, finance and business. These modules are split into three levels: Certificate, Professional and Advanced with a final Case Study section. Candidates are free to take the modules in any order they like.

How long does it take to become an accountant with an ACA qualification?

It can take a minimum of three years to fully train as an ACA qualified accountant and can last anything up to five years.

ACCA qualification – what you need to know

The Association of Chartered Accountants (ACCA) is a globally recognised professional accounting body that offers members a valuable Chartered Certified Accountant qualification.

An ACCA qualification gives you membership to one of the world’s most respected accountancy bodies, containing over 188,000 members and 480,000 students in 178 countries. One of the other benefits of an ACCA qualification is that they’re accepted world-wide.

Which careers require an ACCA qualification?

An ACCA qualification gives you a far broader variety of accountancy skills, so you’ll be able to work in a range of different sectors within tax, audit, advisory roles, or as an accountant within a firm. You also have the option to work for yourself as a freelance accountant.

Another benefit of opting for an ACCA qualification is that it affords you the chance to progress quickly through the ranks towards more senior roles. You’ll also stand to earn more money. Our Salary Guide suggests that the average group accountant can potentially earn between £47,000 and £75,500 this year, when working as part of a large organisation.

How do the ACCA exams work?

ACCA qualifications have two levels of exams: fundamentals and professional. You don’t need a university education to get an ACCA qualification—you have the option to start at the foundation level and build upwards. If you happen to have a university education, you can jump right in to the mid-weight level exams. When you’ve finished with your exams, you’ll need to complete at least 3 years of relevant work experience.

How long does it take to become an accountant with an ACCA qualification?

Because they offer entry to those with no qualifications as well as people with advanced qualifications, the time it takes to complete the process can vary. The ACCA advise working and studying simultaneously for the fastest results, which they predict could take as little as three or four years.

CIMA qualification – what you need to know

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants is the world’s largest professional body of management accountants. Like the ACCA qualifications, a CIMA is also incredibly respected and desired among hiring managers in the financial sector.

Another thing worth noting about CIMA is that it has approximately 229,000 members and students in 176 countries. Gaining membership gives you the benefit of communication links to 600,000 finance professionals across the globe via a new association with the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA).

Which careers require a CIMA qualification?

CIMA qualifications have a specialised focus on management accounting in a business context. You’ll learn the skills needed to occupy roles that require a strategic financial business mind. Real-life skills—like analysis, strategy, planning and risk management—will give you an employers’ perfect blend of financial knowledge.

Embarking on a career in finance with a CIMA qualification gives you a far greater chance of earning more than the national average and provides a strong case for negotiating a higher salary. Research by CIMA last year showed that members earned over twice the wage of others in similar roles, at an average of £64,011.

How do the CIMA exams work?

With CIMA qualifications, you have two main choices: a Certificate in Business Accounting or a Professional Qualification. Once you start studying, you have the option to book your exams whenever you like using an online portal and various drop-in exam centres.

How long does it take to become an accountant with a CIMA qualification?

As with an ACCA qualification, the length of time the qualification takes will depend on how much experience you have when you begin studying.

School leavers can jump straight into studying without the need for a degree. Undergraduates have the option to get a head start and combine CIMA studies with university studies. Those with a Master’s or MBA in Accounting are eligible to skip 11 of the exams and gain a fast track to their qualification.

Train to become an accountant via other accountancy qualifications

Aside from these three main options, there are other ways to gain qualifications that will secure a future in accountancy.


The Association of Accounting Technicians offer a wide range of accessible courses to those that want a career in either finance or accounting. The difference with an AAT qualification is that you also have the option to do an apprenticeship as you train to become an accountant.

Although a career in accountancy takes time, there are a number of ways to get qualified, all depending on what your career end-goal is. You can find out more about the potential salaries for careers in finance by taking a look at our Salary Guide.

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