ACA, ACCA or CIMA? That’s the choice many pursuing a career in accounting will have to make. Back in 2015 when I was applying for jobs in the accounting and finance industries, I faced this choice myself without fully understanding all of the differences between the three.
For those making this choice right now, let me make it clear and lay out exactly what the differences are and what each qualification can offer you.
The ACA and ACCA are very similar both in terms of difficulty and content. The ACCA is generally considered more prestigious internationally whilst the ACA is more geared to the UK setting. CIMA is better suited to those pursuing a career in the industry with a greater focus on management accounting.
Needless to say, the differences between these three qualifications don’t stop there. Let’s take a look at each of these qualifications, what they can offer prospective accountants and which one is best suited to you as an individual.
The ACA, ACCA and CIMA qualifications differences
The first major difference between these three qualifications is the accountancy body overseeing them.
The ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant) qualification is delivered by the ICAEW which stands for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales – take a look at their website here.
The ACCA qualification is delivered by the ACCA (The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) whose website can be found here.
The CIMA qualification is delivered by CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) whose website can be found here.
Beyond the acronym avalanche I’ve just laid down, the other primary difference between these qualifications is the focus of the content covered.
The ACA and ACCA qualifications are very similar both in terms of content and the associated difficulty of the exams. CIMA is slightly different with a greater focus on management accounting than the other two qualifications which are more focused on financial accounting and reporting.
What is the difference between ACA and ACCA?
As discussed above, much like the respective acronyms, there is not too much difference between the ACA and ACCA in terms of content and difficulty. Despite this, there are a number of differences worth highlighting to help inform your decision.
The first notable difference is the structure of the course. The ACA has three levels – certificate, professional and advanced with 15 exams in total split as 6 exams in both the certificate and professional levels and 3 in the final advanced level.
The ACCA, by contrast, has four levels; applied knowledge, applied skills, essentials and options whereby students study 3 ‘applied knowledge’ exams, 6 ‘applied skills’ exams, 2 ‘essentials’ exams and 2 out of 4 ‘options’ exams.
The primary difference in content between the ACA and ACCA is the focus on audit and assurance. Generally speaking, the ACA qualification is more appropriate for those working in practice (i.e the big audit firms) whilst the ACCA may be more suited to those working in industry or at least outside of Audit.
The ACA exams include mandatory assurance-based exams at both the certificate and professional levels whereas the ACCA has an assurance exam within the ‘applied skills’ stage and a further optional exam within the ‘options’ level.
Another notable difference is the course length. If the goal is to become a professional accountant as soon as possible, ACCA is the superior choice as qualifications can be achieved in two years in the best-case scenario as opposed to three years with the ACA.
The ACCA is generally considered more prestigious on the international stage, being the better known of the two qualifications, particularly in Asia and South America. The ACA is generally thought of in better regard within the UK professional services firms, particularly the big 4; Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC.
What is the difference between CIMA and other accounting qualifications?
As explained above, the ACA and ACCA qualifications do have some notable differences but for the most part, are very similar. CIMA, on the other hand, is quite substantially different.
The primary difference between CIMA is the greater focus on management accounting and the consequential benefit for those planning to work in industry rather than practice.
For this reason, if your career goal is to work in the finance department of a particular company, such as Vodafone, CIMA may represent the superior qualification whereas if you plan to work in practice, i.e. for a Big 4 firm like KPMG, ACA or ACCA is likely more suitable.
Unlike the ACA, CIMA can be done independently outside of a formal place of employment which increases flexibility and allows individuals to become fully qualified accountants without first being accepted by an employer which may have involved a challenging recruitment process.
Whilst a subjective matter of opinion, it has been claimed that in the early years, CIMA leads to more interesting work than the ACA or ACCA qualifications as the accountant will be closer to the day-to-day decisions and strategy of a business rather than the repetitive, technical work associated with an audit.
If you’re interested in the CIMA qualification and wondering if it’s right for you, check out my post on How Hard is the CIMA qualification?
How does the ACA qualification work?
The ACA qualification involves three years of on-the-job learning combined with the requirement to pass fifteen exams.
Alongside the fifteen exams and 450 days of work experience (earned over a three-year qualification) are accompanied by professional development and ethics modules in order to qualify.
The ICAEW website tells us that over 5,000 employers train ACA students and the average salary of an ICAEW chartered accountant is £134,000. Clearly, this is an exceptional average salary but it should be noted that this is heavily skewed by the few earning truly outstanding incomes as CFOs or board members of the country’s largest organisations.
How does the ACCA qualification work?
Similar to the ACA qualification, the ACCA requires the completion of practical work experience, passing thirteen exams and ethical modules.
The ACCA qualification is more flexible than the ACA and allows full-time, part-time, distance learning and online courses as well as greater availability of exam sittings.
As per Kaplan, 96% of employers think of the ACCA as a respected qualification which goes to show the well-respected nature of this course and the positive reputation it holds.
For more on the ACCA qualification, read my post on How Hard is the ACCA Qualification?
How does the CIMA qualification work?
CIMA accountants are well respected within the financial industry with many leading employers choosing to train their employees using this qualification.
As per Reed.co.uk CIMA professionals can expect to earn an entry-level salary of £28,000 per year with an average of £60,000 per year for fully qualified professionals.
Much like the ACCA, the study paths for CIMA are highly flexible with numerous flexible studying options available for students.
The professional CIMA qualification can take upwards of three years depending on how much time is dedicated to studying.
Other accountancy qualifications to consider
The AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) accounting qualification is seen as a solid foundational course for chartered accountancy. This is a self-paced course with four levels progressing in difficulty and is nationally and internationally recognised.
Whilst not considered as prestigious as the other qualifications mentioned in this article, the AAT will provide a high-quality accountancy education for its prospects.
The CIPFA (The Institute of Public and Finance Accountancy) is another accountancy qualification with a particular focus on the public sector.
The ACA, ACCA and CIMA are all high-quality, prestigious accounting qualifications which can lead to great careers within the accounting and wider finance industries.
Each of these qualifications is delivered by a different accountancy body and whilst the ACA and ACCA are fairly similar in content, structure and difficulty, the CIMA qualification is markedly different with a greater focus on management accounting.
As always, please remember I am an Accountant, but not your Accountant. In this post (and all of my others) I share information and oftentimes give anecdotes about what has worked well for me. However, I do not know your personal financial situation and so do not offer individual financial advice. If you are unsure of a particular financial subject, please hire a qualified financial advisor to guide you.
This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my ‘About‘ page for more information. To verify my ACA credentials – please search for my name at the ICAEW member finder. To get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts, please comment below or contact me here.