If you harbour ambitions of becoming a chartered accountant in the UK, discover the accounting qualifications you'll need to progress your career
What is a chartered accountant?
Chartered accountants are finance professionals that provide advice and expertise to individuals, companies and organisations across all sectors seeking to achieve their financial and strategic objectives.
To become a chartered accountant, you'll need to undertake in-depth accountancy training, pass professional exams with a recognised industry body such as the ICAEW or ACCA and ensure your skills are kept up to date.
Accountancy is often perceived as an uneventful career by those outside of the profession, but it can be one of the most fulfilling - whether you choose to work in the private or public sector.
In terms of necessary attributes, you'll need more than simply being good at maths. Analytical, interpretation and adaptability skills are required to communicate accurate financial information, put forward realistic targets and drive business growth.
Even if you do possess the right qualities to be an accountant, you'll still need to decide on the area of accounting that suits you best and explore the preferred qualifications of that specialism.
Here are the steps you'll need to take if you plan on becoming an accountant in the UK.
1. Study the right accounting qualifications
The AAT qualification is typically the minimum level expected of an accountant, but to ultimately become a chartered accountant, you'll need to progress to the ACCA, ACA or CIMA qualifications.
Although many accountants hold a university degree, it's often desirable rather than essential. Even if it is a prerequisite for a role, the degree can usually be in any subject.
So, while maths and economics at A-level followed by an accounting degree may be advantageous, you'd still be able to get the accountancy qualifications you need, as professional bodies provide courses for students and workers at all levels.
A variety of finance qualifications are available to those interested in accounting careers, which can be confusing when searching for job opportunities.
Here are the most popular accountant qualifications from the industry's leading professional bodies:
- AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) - made up of four qualifications across three levels (Levels 2-4), AAT accounting courses combine industry knowledge and practical work skills.
- ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) - ACCA qualifications comprise of two levels: Fundamentals and Professionals. The modules cover a variety of topics from corporate and business law to audit and assurance.
- AIA (The Association of International Accountants) - by completing the AIA professional qualification, their highest award, you can achieve qualified accountant status and become a member of this global organisation.
- ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) - also referred to as the ACA, the ICAEW chartered accountant qualification consists of 450 days of practical work experience and the completion of 15 exam modules.
- CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) - for a career in management accounting, you can study towards the widely recognised CIMA professional qualification and CGMA (Chartered Global Management Accountant) designation, which requires you to have already achieved the postgraduate-level CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting (Cert BA).
Many accountancy firms accept qualifications from any board, but if you have a set career path in mind, it's worth looking into the preferred accounting qualifications.
For example, to become a chartered accountant through ACCA, you'll need to have studied for the qualification and have three years' work experience in a relevant role. It usually takes three to four years in total to become fully qualified.
If you're wondering whether you can become a chartered accountant without a degree, you can apply for the ACCA qualification with a combination of GCSEs and A-levels. However, by already holding a degree or Masters in any subject, this may make you exempt from some of the exams. Even without any formal academic qualifications, you can enter the accounting profession and study at the foundation level.
See accounting courses for further information on each course provider.
2. Choose your accounting specialism
Accounting careers can be split into two key areas: management accounting and financial accounting. Within these divisions are further specialist fields such as budget and financial analysis, and working as a controller.
The difference between management accounting and financial accounting is that the former provides information to people within a company, while financial accounting provides information to those outside of it, such as shareholders.
Unlike financial accounting, management accounting isn't required by law and only covers particular products. On the other hand, financial accounting covers the entire organisation.
Most graduates will enter accounting through financial accountancy, which can provide a variety of career prospects such as:
- business recovery and insolvency
- corporate finance
- forensic accounting
For each accounting specialism, graduates also have the choice of whether to work in the public or private sector.
3. Secure a job or accountancy apprenticeship
Despite the importance of qualifications to become established in the industry, the value of real-life accountancy work cannot be underestimated.
Study often complements work in a full-time position, presenting the perfect opportunity for graduates to build the necessary skills. Securing a training contract enables you to work while studying for a recognised accounting qualification.
As an accountant, you'll be able to find work in any sector (public and private) and with large companies and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Over time, you'll be able to focus on your preferred working environment. Most vacancies are available direct from employers, so look out for roles you're eligible to apply for.
You'll also find that finance graduate schemes are often structured with the opportunity to attain an accounting qualification such as the ACA or CGMA as one of the programme's objectives.
However, accounting apprenticeships, such as those run by the AAT, are a viable alternative to university and they provide a fast-track to achieving chartered status with the main professional bodies such as the ICAEW and ACCA.
When you secure an apprenticeship, you can gain practical skills while earning a wage and receiving the same benefits (including a holiday allowance) as other employees at the company.
4. Get relevant accounting work experience
Another way to enter the industry is through a work placement or voluntary or part-time role. Even work shadowing for a day can give you a feel for the kinds of accounting activities you might be involved in. As an alternative to working in an office, some accountancy firms now offer virtual work experience opportunities.
Formal summer accounting internships with larger financial institutions, such as PwC or Deloitte, can be highly competitive for students, as they're usually oversubscribed. Don't be concerned though as any type of finance work experience will boost your chances of landing a full-time job in an accounting role.
Check individual websites of companies you'd like to work for to see if they have any current vacancies. You may be able to land a work placement by sending speculative applications to local SMEs in the financial sector.
If you're at university, consider extra-curricular activities such as volunteering to be the treasurer for a club or society, or look for a part-time job that will help you to develop skills in this area.
Depending on the size of the firm, you may get to work on real projects and manage your own workload as you acquire key accounting skills. Training is usually provided to those engaging in work experience and you'll get to make industry contacts that can aid your future accountancy career.
As many employers will only support trainee accountants in studying for their accounting qualifications if they've previously undertaken relevant work experience, this will be a valuable addition to your CV and help you on your way to becoming a qualified accountant.
Explore how to go about securing either a work placement or internship.