CPA vs. Accountant: what is the difference?

The short answer to this question is that all CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. Let me explain:


In Canada, anyone can call themselves an accountant. And yes, I mean anyone. But only Chartered Professional Accountants (CPAs) are allowed to call themselves a professional accountant, and in order to become a CPA you have to go through an in-depth process of training, testing, and work experience.


Similarly, anyone can offer to prepare taxes and financial statements with no training whatsoever. But only CPAs have a licensing system within our accounting profession to ensure that it is only accountants and accounting firms with the proper knowledge and experience that can issue financial statements and give tax advice.


I have, on more than one occasion, had a new client come to me and bring me copies of the documentation provided by their previous accountant. This is normal practice, and when things are in order I don’t think twice about it – we have a great system of respect in our profession for our fellow accountants. But on these few occasions, I discovered that the clients’ accountants were not actually accountants at all but bookkeepers who were calling themselves public accountants and providing financial statements that were incorrect and misleading and tax advice that was false and actually detrimental to their clients. These clients had no idea, and were shocked to learn that the person they had trusted as their accountant was not a professional accountant at all and had actually been giving them bad advice.


I honestly believe that those bookkeepers had good intentions, but that they just didn’t have the right training or experience to know what they didn’t know. And with no requirement for accountability whatsoever, they were likely to carry on doing the same thing to many other clients in the future.


CPAs, on the other hand, are subject to licensing requirements (which include a mandate to keep up to date on the latest changes in accounting and tax) and a file inspection process that ensures that everything we do is materially accurate, complete, and correct. We are held accountable by our professional governing body, and can lose our license to provide services to the public if we don’t comply with the standards of our profession. Which is why you’ll often see a requirement from lenders for financial statements prepared by a Chartered Professional Accountant.


This isn’t to say that there aren’t some great accountants out there who aren’t CPAs. There absolutely are! But they can be hard to find. And more importantly, they can be hard for most people to distinguish from those out there who are simply calling themselves an accountant without the proper knowledge and experience.