In this CFA calculator guide – which also applies to the FRM and CAIA exams by the way – we discuss the pros and cons of each model and what we think is the best calculator for CFA Level 1 and beyond.
Remember that CFA exams have a strict calculator policy. You would not be allowed to use your calculator in the exams if you don’t have the exact approved model to hand.
Only 2 calculator models (and their variations) are allowed for CFA exams:
- Texas Instruments BA II Plus (including BA II Plus Professional), and
- Hewlett-Packard 12C (including the HP 12C Platinum, 12C Platinum 25th anniversary edition, 12C 30th anniversary edition, and HP 12C Prestige).
I wouldn’t call this the CFA Program version of the smartphone wars, but sometimes discussions can get a little heated on which calculator for CFA exams is ‘better’.
Read on for a more detailed comparison on all models!
TI BA II Plus: A popular & value-for-money workhorse
BA II Plus is affordable, easy to use, and the most widely-used calculator in CFA, FRM and CAIA exams.
BA II Plus Professional is more premium, expensive yet easy to use. Has additional functions e.g. NFV, PB, DPB.
Unless you’re already a fan of the HP 12C, most people – including ourselves – would recommend Texas Instruments BA II Plus.
I owned and used a TI BA II Plus for my CFA exams and it served me very well.
BA II Plus pros
- Easy to learn and use
- Many third-party provider materials support the BA II Plus with step-by-step guides to calculation
- Cheaper than the HP 12C
BA II Plus cons
- The main complaint from candidates is that it looks cheap and plasticky.
- If you agree you can always get the BA II Plus Professional (sleeker looking, although Sophie has her gripes with the BA II Plus Professional version’s button sensitivity which may slow you down or worse, make mistakes…)
If you’re using the BA II Plus or BA II Plus Professional, check out our ultimate guide for additional tips and tricks:
HP 12C: Sleek and prestigious, but be aware of the RPN
HP’s best selling financial calculator with over 120 built-in functions
Uses Reverse Polish Notation logic
A faster, enhanced version of the HP 12C
Uses Reverse Polish Notation logic
The HP 12C was first introduced in 1981 and little has changed in terms of design and functionality since. The HP 12C has been given out to newcomers in banks for years – as a result it is the de facto standard of finance professionals. As a result there is a fiercely loyal group of HP 12C supporters who will always vouch for its superiority over the BA II Plus.
However, it uses a different input convention to most modern calculators called a Reverse Polish Notation (RPN), which can be perplexing if you’re new to the concept.
In Reverse Polish notation the operators follow their operands; for instance, to add 3 and 4, one would write “3 4 +” rather than “3 + 4”. You can try out a web version of how the RPN works on the HP 12C to get a feel of it.
HP 12C Pros
- (Perceived) prestige – this is the ‘old-school’ calculator
- If you’re used to RPN, we definitely recommend the HP 12C – chances are you’ll have one already!
HP 12C Cons
- If you’re NOT used to RPN, you’ll have to endure a learning curve before you can master the HP 12C, although many of the HP 12C’s fans maintain that it’s worth it.
- It’s more expensive. A side effect of its cult status among bankers is that it can cost 2-3x the price of a BA II Plus calculator.
- It’s not as widely used by CFA candidates. Study group discussions may go better if you are all working from the same calculator. Also, should you forget your calculator and borrow one, you’re probably going to end up with a BA II Plus loaner, so it might be better to get used to the BA II Plus.
If you’re new to the HP 12C, here’s a quick-start guide:
Our recommend CFA exam calculator
We would recommend the BA II Plus for value: that’s also the calculator to get if you’re looking to go with ‘what’s everyone else getting’.
But if you’re looking for a little bit of financial pizzazz, and all your bosses and colleagues are rocking the HP 12C, get that instead but consider the learning curve for the RPN.
Don’t worry about one being slower than the other – the key presses required for typical CFA questions and processing times are close enough to be irrelevant.
Are you on the fence, or have you picked a side? Let us know why in the comments below!
Meanwhile, here are other related articles which may be of interest: