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How to become an accountant

A guide to the routes to becoming an accountant and the qualifications you may need

Would you make a good accountant? It’s a pretty broad question, because there are quite a few different types. You could be an in-house accountant at a company in a sector that interests you, or work at an accounting firm; you might focus on small businesses or larger corporations; you might specialise in tax, financial reporting, fund raising, auditing, insolvency or many other niche areas. No one type of person suits accountancy, and you don’t have to be a numbers nerd to excel at it. But if you are reasonably numerate, with great attention to detail, and can combine this with a passion for business in general, you may find accounting is an ideal outlet for your talents.

Being an accountant can be very rewarding too, with generous salaries achievable at senior levels, and a clear career route that can lead to prestigious C-suite positions (e.g. Chief Financial Officer or CFO). There are also several paths to qualification, not all of which require a university degree – so for some it can be an excellent way to start earning early on without incurring lots of student debt.

Here’s our guide to getting started.

What are the daily duties of an accountant?

The duties of an accountant vary depending on your area of specialism, but a typical day could be made up of tasks like:

  • Preparing budgets and financial forecasts (for areas such as cash flow and projected profits or losses)
  • Advising how to mitigate or recover from setbacks
  • Planning investments of business capital
  • Preparing tax returns and month-end and year-end accounts
  • Conducting accounts audits
  • Ensuring compliance with the newest financial laws and regulations and understanding their impact on clients

If you become a chartered accountant, you could also advise on more advanced financial matters on a day-to-day basis. These could include:

  • Corporate finance. For example, helping to finance company mergers, acquisitions and capital restructuring operations
  • Financial management within a business
  • Personal financial advice on detailed individual and company matters
  • Forensic accounting to help with commercial fraud litigation

What skills does an accountant need?

Naturally, you’ll need to be good with numbers and comfortable dealing with calculations to work out things like profit margins, compound interest and cash flow forecasts. An accountant should also be comfortable using digital accounting software and spreadsheets, particularly if you’re seeking an in-house position. Other important skills include:

  • A meticulous eye for detail and a rigorous approach (you’re someone who checks their own work)
  • Organisation
  • Excellent time management
  • Great communication
  • Business acumen – particularly if you’re interested in becoming a management accountant

What qualifications do you need to become an accountant?

If you’re just starting out, either as an undergraduate or moving from a completely different career, it’s best to begin with an AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) qualification. With AAT, you can study a range of courses, from NVQ all the way up to degree level, and can qualify for courses run by the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) or ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants). This will allow you to gain further qualifications and become a fully chartered accountant.

Alternatively, you could go for a degree in accounting. This can award you the relevant AAT and/or chartered qualifications you need. You could also investigate the ICB (Institute of Certified Bookkeepers) or IAB (International Association of Bookkeepers) if you’re interested in pursuing a career in bookkeeping and payroll instead. CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) is another good option if you’re set on a career as a management accountant (see below).

What are the different types of accountants?

There are lots of different types of accountants that specialise in different areas of financial management and planning. Here are seven of the most common:

  • Chartered – An accountant that is a member of a reputable professional body such as ICAEW or ACCA. You can only gain chartered status after passing a series of exams and completing at least three years of professional experience.
     
  • In-house – An in-house accountant will manage all the financial affairs of the company. If your responsibilities concern things like payroll and invoicing, it’s likely you will just be AAT qualified. But if you handle more complex matters or occupy a senior or C-suite position, chartered status is likely to be a requirement.
     
  • Freelance – A self-employed accountant that is contracted by companies, either on an ongoing or ad-hoc basis.
     
  • Forensic – An accountant that aids litigation and criminal investigations into suspected cases of commercial fraud, theft and embezzlement.
     
  • Management – Management accountants digest financial information to help track a company’s financial decision, and produce reports, charts and other tools to help inform key decision makers’ next moves.
     
  • Tax – Tax accountants help individuals and companies with all kinds of tax matters, from tax returns to structuring finances in the most tax-efficient way.
     
  • Auditor – An auditor’s job is to double check financial records for accuracy with an impartial, third-party eye. You’ll need to be a chartered accountant and complete the National Audit Office’s three-year auditing course.

What are the entry routes to becoming an accountant?

There are a number of different routes into accountancy. If you’re happy to commit to full-time studies, you could enrol in an accounting degree. Most UK universities offer a course that allows you to gain the knowledge and accreditation needed to get a job as an accountant. You can also choose a specialism in your final year, meaning you’ll be able to look for work in your chosen niche or enter the relevant further study straight after graduation.

Do I need a degree to train as an accountant?

If you don’t want to go down the route of higher education, you could look for an apprenticeship or trainee position as an accounts assistant. Some positions will ask that you have degree-level education, but others will accept a Maths A level or previous experience in a finance/accounting environment. Many larger firms have an ‘earn-as-you-learn’ apprentice programme where you can study for a AAT qualification while earning a wage – a great way to avoid student debt.

Alternatively, you could choose to take an accounting course at a local college or go for a distance learning programme that allows you to gain an entry-level AAT qualification. This is a great option if you can’t commit to full-time study, or already have another job and can’t afford to take a drastic salary cut back to trainee level. However, it may limit the scope of jobs you will be qualified for, meaning you may still have to work your way up from a lower position.

How long will it take to become an accountant and how much might it cost?

If you’re studying for a foundation-level AAT qualification, you could complete it in as little as six to eight months. The whole AAT programme generally takes around 18 months to complete, but it’s self-paced, so you can take your exams at a pace that suits your learning style and commitments. The course can cost up to £1,899, depending on the level you’re looking to complete.

Chartered accountants will need to pay additional fees to sit their exams. If you’re looking to join ICAEW, for example, you’ll need to complete four ACA exams, costing £617. However, as three to five years of professional experience is a key part of these professional bodies’ acceptance criteria, your employer might cover some or all of the cost. You’ll also need to pay an annual membership fee to remain a member of your chosen chartered accounting body. ACCA charges £246 per year.

How much do accountants earn?

The average starting salary for an ACCA trainee accountant is around £19,300. You can expect to earn between £18,000 to £21,000 while you’re completing your qualification, regardless of the qualifying body you’ve chosen. A newly qualified chartered accountant can expect to earn around £30,000, though there will be regional variations.

Once you’re qualified, there will be plenty of career progression opportunities that bring a higher salary with them. A survey by AccountacyAge found that the average salary for accountants across the UK is £63,715. On average, accountants with a formal accounting qualification earn £64,220 per year, while those without earn £45,974. An accountant with a decade or more of experience could reach senior or director level, where the average salary is around £78,135.

Can I become a self-employed accountant?

Once you’ve obtained your qualifications and relevant experience, you can choose to work as a self-employed accountant rather than accepting a salaried position. At the very least, you’ll need to register as a sole-trader with HRMC so you can submit a tax return at the end of the year. If you’re interested in forming a limited liability partnership (LLP) or a limited company to separate yourself and your business, you’ll need to register with Companies House.

Choosing self-employment has many benefits. You could earn more money as you’ll keep all client fees and your income isn’t limited to a set salary. You can also choose your own hours and workload, allowing you to be more flexible around commitments and enjoy a better work-life balance. However, you will need to be diligent about keeping financial records for your tax return (something that should be second nature for an accountant!) and have the ability to motivate and organise yourself so you can meet client deadlines.

How do I find clients as an accountant?

If you’re going it alone, it can be hard to find your first clients. Here are some tips that will help you get started:

  • Gain experience by doing accounts for your friends, family and professional associates. It might not be particularly lucrative, but it will help you build up a solid portfolio and gain a better practical understanding of your work.
     
  • Set up an online presence. If you can, building a website and social media profiles will make it easier for people to find you, research your services and get in touch.
     
  • Advertise your services wherever you can. Social media, local community groups, business forums and relevant industry sites will broaden your reach and help you keep a steady stream of clients rolling in.
     
  • Choose an Unbiased plan to help you connect with thousands of potential clients in your local area. Find out more about how this powerful tool can help you grow your business and manage everything from invoices to customer relations.
About the author
Nick Green
Nick Green
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.

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