How to Choose the Right Accountancy Qualification: ACCA, CIMA or ACA?

In a recent LinkedIn poll, we asked “What in your opinion is the best Accountancy qualification to study?”. The 725 responses were split fairly evenly across three senior accountancy qualifications: the ACCA (38%), CIMA (29%), and ACA (28%). The junior AAT came last, with just 5%.


The consensus was “all [of the] above are great professional bodies and none is better than the other to study” and “it depends on your pursued profession”. However, you could choose one of the three top-tier options unless of course, you want to go down a specialist route, i.e. CTA and ATT for Tax or CIPFA for Public Sector Accounting. We’ve outlined some key factors you should consider when choosing an accountancy qualification.


AAT is worth a definite mention here. We have over 28 years of experience in Finance Recruitment and have seen a great many Accountants start their journey by getting a good grounding doing the AAT in the first instance and then moving on to the other qualifications. Having successfully completed the AAT, this will also give you several exemptions on papers for the CIMA, ACCA, and ACA.


Who offers each qualification?


The ACCA is offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, whereas CIMA is headed by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. The ACA is managed by the ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales). All have helped thousands of ambitious accountancy professionals enrich their career options.


Possible Entry Routes


The ACCA offers three different entry points and exams, depending on your existing level of education:


  • The Strategic Professional – ideal for degree holders from ACCA-accredited universities. These provide a fast track for graduates to attain their ACCA.
  • The Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills entry point – perfect for those holding three GCSEs and two A levels. They will also need to complete the Strategic Professional exams.
  • The Foundations pathway for students – ideal for those without these qualifications. Providing a good introduction, it paves the way for completing the other two sets of exams.


Discover more about the different exam levels here.


By contrast, the CIMA does not require its students to have a set level of qualifications if starting at the foundational Certificate level. However, there is the option to bypass some exams and start with the Professional qualification. Their exemptions calculator is a great place to start.


The ACA also acknowledges your past learning experiences. From A levels and GCSEs to degrees or other professional accounting qualifications, including the AAT, you can put your skills to good use at different entry points. Their route finder tool is a helpful resource in making your decision.


All three qualifications reward your past achievements, saving you time and money.


Picture Your Future


It pays to think ahead when considering which accountancy qualification to pursue. Each of the qualifications prepares you for different career paths.


The ACCA/AAT/ACA/CTA/ATT are studied whilst working in Practice. Whilst CIMA/ACCA/AAT are generally studied whilst in Industry.  Out of the three main qualifications ACA is seen as the more technical Financial Accounting qualification, CIMA  for more Management Accountant, and ACCA a hybrid of both.


Still feeling undecided. We’d suggest taking a moment to list your dream employers and preferred daily activities.


Course Duration


It’s vital to know whether you can complete your intended qualification in the required time.


Whilst the ACCA takes most students three to four years whilst studying and gaining practical experience, some learners will inevitably take longer. The key thing to remember is that you’ll only have seven years to pass all the required exams; a rule triggered after successfully sitting the first Strategic Professional exam.


The ACA gives you a set time (up to 5 years) to complete a training agreement (see ‘practical experience’ below). You have four chances to pass each Professional Stage knowledge and application unit, but there is no upper limit with Advanced Stage units. You can complete them at your own pace, as with CIMA’s exams. Each CIMA exam normally takes just one year to complete.


Practical Experience


In addition, ACCA and CIMA have mandatory practical experience requirements (‘PER’) to reassure future employers that you are ready to go. Expect to complete a minimum of 36 months of practical experience for the ACCA or CIMA. A period of 3-4 years will be allowed for this.


The ACA is slightly different. It demands practical work experience of at least 450 days (they estimate this will take three to five years). So, it’s worth remembering that the first two options will provide more practical training on the job.




You also need to factor in the overall cost of each qualification. Some students have these covered by their employer, but this is not guaranteed.


Budget for ACCA exam fees (between £129-£375 each time), an additional module fee for Ethics and Professional Skills (£82), registration (£89), alongside an annual subscription fee (£112). Exemption fees (if applicable) are also worth noting.


CIMA newcomers will pay out a registration fee (starting at £77). Then, the tier 1 exam fees range from £100-£289 individually, as shown here. But with no module exemption fees and the first year’s subscription fee included, this does appear to be a less expensive option.


The fees for the ACA include the standard annual student fee (£180), exam fees (£72-£267 per sitting), and any credit for prior learning (£72-£103) for each Professional Level exam. View more details here.


Other expected costs are books and any tuition fees or accommodation/travel if physically sitting exams.


Study Methods


Worried that personal and work commitments are barriers to study? You can rest assured knowing that all three bodies offer their qualifications online. It means that nothing should stop you from aiming high.


Simply look for online providers of your chosen body’s course and remember to reflect on whether classroom or online provision will benefit your learning style more.


Most people study at the same time as working and in an ideal situation the employer will pay for the studies and support, so worth asking this at the interview stage.


Practice or Industry?


Accounting practices offer professional services to both public and private sector companies. Services can include accounting, auditing, assurance, tax, consulting, advisory, actuarial, corporate finance, and legal services.


Accountants in industry, however, go and work directly for a firm and manage their finances. Responsibilities might include budgeting, cost control, and accounting systems, and accountants in industry often form an important part of the management team.


Wherever your career takes you, the decision to work in practice or industry must be made on your preferences. Ask yourself a series of questions; is it the salary or the importance of the work you produce? Is it the variety, people contact, or your day-to-day work-life balance?


You can always change your mind, although it is a little easier to move from practice into industry rather than the other way around. If you want to try both, consider going into practice first.


Our Advice


We hope that this post has helped you reach the right decision for you. It’s important to know that there are no right or wrong answers, just different options. Based in Lincolnshire and surrounds, we can help you find your next career opportunity during your studies, upon qualification, or for experienced Finance Professionals. Simply view our job search tool or contact us to find out more.


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