There is more than one route to qualifying as an accountant. A career in accountancy can cover many specialisms, so choosing the right professional qualification is important to ensure that it’s aligned with the path that you want to take.
We have compiled this free, comprehensive guide to help you identify which accountancy qualifications are most suited to your ambitions.
What A-levels or degrees do you need to be an accountant?
A-level grades and university degrees aren’t necessary to begin any of the five recognised accountancy qualifications in this article, although a competent knowledge of Maths and English is required.
An accountancy or finance-related degree will, however, give you some exemptions from the early-stage exams, thus allowing you to complete the qualifications faster.
The National Careers Service recommends first sitting for GCSE exams if you would like to undertake an apprenticeship, or continuing on to study your A Levels if you aspire to earn a university degree. Some employers may also request your GCSE or NVQ results before supporting any UK-based professional studies or accountancy exams.
What skills do you need to be an accountant?
Although entry-level requirements are flexible depending on the qualification chosen and your level of education, employers tend to look for people who can demonstrate they have the following skills:
– Good general IT skills (including an understanding of cutting-edge tech like generative AI)
– Strong knowledge of Excel
– Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
– Commercial awareness
How to become an accountant in the UK
In the UK, there are five recognised professional accountancy qualifications that you can gain to work as an accountant. Click to learn more about each qualification.
AAT | CIMA | ACA (ICAEW) | ACCA | CIPFA
What are the different accounting qualifications?
If you don’t have a finance-related university degree (or you’re looking to enter the world of work straight after school or college), AAT is typically the entry-level qualification that aspiring accountants study. The AAT offers a range of accounting and bookkeeping qualifications as well as supporting apprenticeships. Completing the full AAT course will also give you exemptions from the early-stage exams of CIMA, ACCA, and ACA qualifications.
There are several levels to an AAT qualification:
Level 1 – This starting level requires no exams to enrol. If you can evidence basic numeracy skills through GCSE certifications, you can start at Level 2 without first completing Level 1.
Level 2 – The foundation certificate level that covers the basics of accountancy, including double-entry bookkeeping, finance administration and how to use accounting software.
Level 3 – Covers some more complex accounting principles in bookkeeping and management accounting.
Level 4 – The final level of AAT covers drafting financial statements, budget management and assessing financial performance.
Once you’ve completed Level 4 and the practical work experience requirements, you can apply for your AAT membership.
The CIMA qualification is better suited to those who want to pursue a management accounting career in the industry. The entry routes to study for a CIMA qualification are flexible; you can be a school or college leaver, AAT qualified or a graduate in a finance or non-finance subject.
This qualification combines accounting, finance, and management skills, along with business techniques to create a well-rounded qualification. Those who are AAT qualified will be exempt from the Certificate level of CIMA, while university graduates who have a relevant finance degree can gain as many as 11 exam exemptions.
There are four levels to a CIMA qualification in total:
Certificate in Business Accounting – This is for those who haven’t completed AAT or done a finance-related degree. It covers the fundamentals of business economics, management accounting, financial accounting and business ethics.
Professional Operational – This course teaches you about management, costs and analysis used in finance. This also includes cast studies to test your knowledge and takes around 12 months to complete.
Professional Management – This advanced course goes beyond the operational level with topics around managing performance, advanced management accounting and advanced financial reporting followed by the Management Case Study.
Professional Strategic – This is the highest qualification from CIMA and one that opens the door to roles such as financial controller, MD, or finance manager. The strategic course consists of three exams (strategic management, risk management, and financial strategy) followed by the Strategic Case Study.
Once all exams are completed, your practical experience must be signed off, which involves completing the assessment of practical experience requirements (PER), to become fully CIMA qualified.
ACA (ICAEW) is typically better suited to those seeking a career in an Accountancy Practice, although some businesses in the industry will also support the qualification.
Much like the other accounting qualifications in the UK, ACA incorporates more than just accounting or bookkeeping skills and prides itself on developing practical skills, ethics and professional scepticism, professional development, and providing accountancy, finance and business training.
The key benefit of an ACA qualification is that the entry routes are also very flexible; the course is open to college leavers, graduates from a finance or non-finance degree and those who have completed AAT.
There are three levels; certificate level, professional level and advanced level, with 15 exams in total.
The ACA qualification can take up to five years to complete, although typically it will be finished in three years. In addition to the exams, you will need to complete 450 days of practical work experience to become fully ACA qualified.
ACCA is a broad qualification that is suited to either practice or industry. The entry requirements are also flexible; you may have completed AAT or you could be a graduate with a finance or non-finance degree. There are 14 exams in total, however, those with a finance degree can get up to nine exemptions.
The 14 exams are broken down into three sections:
3 Fundamental exams – covering accountancy in business, management accounting and financial accounting.
6 Skills exams – covering tax, financial reporting, audit, financial management, performance management and corporate law.
Professional exams – three are essential and then you’ll choose two further exams from four optional modules.
You can become ACCA qualified in a minimum of three years.
CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) is a niche accountancy qualification, as it is the world’s only professional accountancy body that is exclusively dedicated to public sector financial management.
CIPFA runs an apprenticeship scheme for school leavers, as well as offering a course that is suitable for graduates with finance or non-finance degrees.
There are three levels to CIPFA:
Level 1 – Professional certificate
Level 2 – Professional diploma
Level 3 – Strategic stage
For expert career advice or to learn how we can support you in finding your ideal finance role, contact our recruitment specialists today.
Alternatively, visit our finance jobs board to see the full range of accountancy roles we are representing in the sector.
Article last updated: 5/10/23