Best Finance Certifications: Our Top List

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We’ve had interesting discussions about CFA vs. MBA before, and whether it’s a worthwhile investment.

However, that’s not the only alternative qualifications many of us consider in our pursuit of career advancement. With the various professional qualifications available, it can be quite daunting at first when faced with so many unfamiliar acronyms. 

In this article, I’ll demystify and compare a list of the best finance certifications. Although it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but it would give you a flavor of what qualifications suitable for your career goals and aspirations. 

The good news? The best certification to choose depends on your career goals and the type of job you’re aiming for, since each of these qualifications are further specializations in their respective fields. Check it out!


CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

What Is The CFA Exam
Topic areasPortfolio management, securities analysis, ethics, economics, financial accounting
Number of exams required3 Levels
Exam frequencyFrom 2022:
– Level 1 is held 4x a year, with exam windows available every quarter in February, May, August and November.​

– Level 2 is held 2x a year, with exam windows available in February and August going forward.​

– Level 3 is held 2x a year, with exam windows available in May and November.​
Designation requirements– Pass all 3 CFA exams;
– Get relevant work experiences;
– Send 2-3 professional references;
– Apply to CFA Institute to become a CFA Charterholder.

More details on how to become a CFA charterholder here.
​Exam fees and costsUS$ 450 one-off enrolment fee plus US$700-1,000 exam fee per Level, depending how early your register for the exams.

We estimate the total cost of the CFA exam to be $2,600-8,000, assuming 3 consecutive passes with no travel & accommodation costs.
Related sectorsInvestment analysis, portfolio management, securities research, pension, insurance, corporate finance
Pass rates44%-56% depending on each Level. See our CFA pass rates article for more details.
Charterholders worldwide167,000+

Interested in finding out more about CFA designation? These related articles may be of interest:


FRM (Financial Risk Manager)

frm
Topic areas​Risk modelling, market risk, credit risk, investment management risk, operational and integrated risk.
​Number of exams required2 Parts
Exam frequencyFor Part 1: May, July and November;
For Part 2: May and November/December.
Designation requirements– Pass both FRM papers;
– a minimum of 2 years professional full-time work experience in the area of financial risk management or another related field;
– maintain GARP membership
Exam fees and costsUS$400 one-off enrolment fee plus US$550-750 per paper depending on how early you register for the exams.

We estimate the total cost of the FRM exams to be $2,050-3,548, assuming consecutive passes with no travel & accommodation costs.
Applicable sectorsFinancial risk management
Pass ratesFRM Part I: about 40-50%
FRM Part II: about 50-60%
Charterholders worldwide60,000+

If you’re interested in the FRM qualification, you may also be interested in these articles:


CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst)

caia designation chartered alternative investment analyst
Topic areaAlternative assets, asset allocation, portfolio management, risk management
Number of exams required2 Parts
Exam frequencyEvery March and September
Designation requirements– Pass both papers;
– hold a bachelor’s degree, or the equivalent, and have more than 1 year of professional experience, or alternatively have at least 4 years of professional experience; 
– provide 2 professional references;
– abide by Member Agreement;
– pay membership fees;
Exam fees and costsInitial enrolment fee US$400 plus US$1,150-1,250 exam fee for each paper.

We estimate the total cost of the CAIA exams to be $3,000-5,208, assuming consecutive passes with no travel & accommodation costs.
Applicable sectorPortfolio / fund management, asset allocation, consultant, marketer, risk manager, securities analyst
Pass ratesLevel I: 56-81%
Level II: 52-70%

Given the wide historical range of pass rates, it’s best to refer to our CAIA historical pass rates and fully gauge its difficulty.
Charterholders worldwide10,000+

You can find more details and tips in these articles:


CPA (Certified Public Accountant)

Best Finance Certifications: Our Top List 1
Topic areaFinancial reporting, auditing, financial accounting regulation.
Number of exams required4 sections
Exam frequencyAll year round. Candidates can retake any section of the CPA exam within 24 hours.
Designation requirementsRequirements vary depending on which of the 55 US state jurisdictions you wish to be a licensed CPA in. But broadly speaking:

– A bachelor’s degree with at least 150 credit hours;
– A certain number of hours of accounting-specific studies;
– Minimum age of typically 18-21;
– Some states require a 6 months minimum residency;
– Pass AICPA’s ethics exam as a minimum.

For specific details of CPA requirements by US state, please refer to Boards of Accountancy’s website.
Exam fees and costsAgain, this varies by US state.

We estimate the total cost of the CPA exams to be $1,500-3,500, assuming consecutive passes with no travel & accommodation costs.
Applicable sectorAccountancy
Pass ratesOverall 50-60%

However, CPA pass rates are not comparable to CFA exams (for example) for various reasons. Check out our detailed comparison guide of CPA vs CFA to understand the nuances to fully gauge the difficulty of the exams.
Number of Licensed CPAs658,267 as of Sep 2020.

CFP (Certified Financial Planner)

Best Finance Certifications: Our Top List 2
Topic areaFinancial planning process and principles, tax planning, income and retirement planning, estate planning, risk management and insurance.
Number of exams required1
Exam frequencyMarch, July and November
Certification requirements– Complete financial planning coursework through an accredited CFP program;
– Pass CFP exam;
– Minimum of bachelor’s degree;
– 6,000 hours of professional experience related to the financial planning process, or 4,000 hours of apprenticeship experience that meets additional requirements;
– Complete CFP’s ethics declaration and pass background check.
Exam fees and costsExam registration fee varies between $825-$1,025 depending how early you register.

We estimate the total cost of the CFP exams to be $825-3,025, assuming a first-time pass.
Applicable sectorRetail and wealth management
Pass ratesAround 62%
Number of CFPs192,762 worldwide

Best Finance Certifications: Which Should I Choose?

best finance certifications

In short, it really depends on your career objectives and area of interest.

These finance certifications are the best in their respective fields in terms of recognition and value:

  • CFA covers the broadest range of financial topicsadds value to a wide range of financial careers, in particular asset management and securities research –> a challenging qualification but offers the widest career options.
  • CAIA is narrowly focused for the asset/fund management sector and it’s a useful addition if you’re in the sector already.
  • FRM is also narrowly focused, globally recognized qualification for financial risk professionals –> great for risk management roles.
  • CPA is a US-centric accountancy qualification, laser focused on financial reporting, auditing and regulation. As one would expect from a mandatory professional accountancy qualification. A great option for those interested in a stable, accountancy profession.
  • CFP is a well recognized qualification for financial planning, gradually expanding its international footprint.

What’s your current situation and your career goals? Which finance qualifications are you considering? Let us know in the comment below!

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