How to Become a Certified Payroll Professional

Steve Kuhn
February 17, 2021

Today's payroll professionals manage employee pay systems within a complex network of company guidelines and IT systems, privacy regulations, and regular payroll and employment law changes. Add the need for technology skills and knowledge of the latest payroll systems, and you have an essential employee for every organization.

A Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) provides even higher-level knowledge, services, experience, and value to businesses. Below is an overview of career opportunities and a practical guide on becoming a Certified Payroll Professional while increasing your salary, advancing your knowledge and career, and adding to your professional credentials.

Opportunities for Certified Payroll Professionals

Payroll supervisors and managers usually have five years or more experience and a bachelor's degree in accounting, business administration, finance, or HR. CPP certification is often considered essential for senior-level payroll and management roles.

According to Robert Half's 2021 Salary Guide, the median salary for payroll supervisors is $75,500. CPP certification increases your salary potential and higher-level payroll management opportunities. reports a median salary for US payroll managers of $102,040 with more significant compensation and higher demand in major US cities.

Who Certifies Payroll Professionals?

The American Payroll Association (APA) represents more than 20,000 members and sets standards for the US payroll industry. Founded in 1982, the APA certifies two levels of payroll professionals. The Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) recognizes basic skills and competency for entry-level payroll professionals and those supporting payroll systems.

The Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) is a higher-level certification for experienced professionals with extensive payroll knowledge and a senior role in their organization. With its stringent standards and recertification requirements, CPPs are leaders who maintain current knowledge of payroll law, payroll systems, and industry best practices.

Why Payroll Professional Certification Matters

Certification provides credibility for payroll experts who don't have the advantage of a portfolio like other professionals. The rigorous course work and credentials required put CPPs at the top of the payroll profession, demonstrating to organizations they have the experience and knowledge to handle payroll management's fast-paced demands.

Who's Eligible to take the CPP Examination?

The APA requires payroll professionals to meet one of three criteria to be eligible before taking the Certified Payroll Professional Examination:

You do not need to be an APA member to apply or write the exam, but the fees and cost of study materials are higher for non-members. Candidates will be required to submit employment verification as part of their application, and current or former employers may be contacted.

CPP Candidate Handbook

The APA expects all candidates to download and read the CPP Candidate Handbook before taking the examination. It features detailed information about certification, applications, fees, timing, the exam, suggested study tools, sample questions, test guidelines, and how to maintain your CPP certification.

You can download the Handbook for free at the APA website.

All About the CPP Exam

The CPP application process is straightforward for both members and non-members:

Allow up to three business days for applications submitted online, ten days for applications by email, and up to 14 business days for applications by fax or mail. Candidates have up to one year from the approval of an application to schedule and complete the CPP examination.

CPP Examination & Course Fees

The APA publishes its current fees online and in its examination Handbook. Payments will be verified at the time of registration for your course, following approval of your application, employment verification, and assessment of credentials.

Basic Fee

The basic exam fee in 2021 is $380 for APA members and $550 for colleagues and non-members, whether taken online or at a designated APA location. These fees are the same for North America, APA test centers, and military test locations. In South America, the EU, Middle East, Africa, and Asia, fees are slightly higher at $435 for members and $595 for others.

Military members and some military family members may qualify for reimbursement through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Timing & Exam Dates

CPP exams are held twice a year – in the spring and fall in the US, Canada, and Mexico. Reservations are available throughout the year for international testing and those offered on military bases. Check the APA website or Handbook to verify upcoming exam dates, testing timing, and schedules in North America and internationally.

Test Locations

While most candidates take the test online, tests are also offered at testing centers maintained by Pearson VUE, the military, or other approved locations in unique instances.

Testing centers operated by Pearson VUE set their exam schedules based on demand, and candidates should contact them directly by phone or on their website for more information.

Course Outline

Content for the CPP exam generally covers the following payroll knowledge base: Core Payroll Concepts (24%); Compliance/Research & Resources (16%); Calculation of Paychecks (20%); Payroll Process, Supporting Systems & Administration (12%); Payroll Administration & Management (10%); Audits (9%); and Accounting (9%).

Candidates take the examination online or on location and have four hours to complete it. The exam has 190 multiple-choice questions, including 25 pre-test questions. It's rigorous, and that's why many candidates choose to pay for additional study guides and materials or take the intensive Boot Camp mentioned below.

Questions are based on the current country and state payroll regulations effective the first day of the year of the exam. An online exam supplement provides candidates with any tables or references needed for those questions requiring calculations.

A complete list of the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs) is available online.

How to Prepare for the Exam

A useful collection of course guides and study tools helps candidates prepare for the CPP examination. Examinees should gather study material from a variety of sources. The APA handbook provides resources including:

The APA Handbook provides sample questions, and the APA lists an extensive library of publications, e-books, and other online materials, some for free and others with member discounts. You can call APA Customer Service at (210) 224-6406 for more information about the Certified Payroll Professional certification program and resources.

CPP Boot Camp

The APA's Certified Payroll Professional Boot Camp provides an extensive, online training program with tools and resources to help you study and prepare for the CPP exam. It includes live sessions with an expert APA instructor, access for a year to APA's online learning system PayTrain®, on-demand sessions, and a certificate of completion.

Even more important, your fee guarantees you will pass the first time, or you can retake the course next time it's offered at no additional charge. This fee differs for members and non-members but is extremely helpful in assuring success rates.


Certification is granted for five years, and recertification is required every five years. Recertification ensures the highest standards for payroll professionals and helps CPPs maintain their knowledge and keep their professional standing up to date. For employers, this establishes a dependable benchmark for employees and new hires.

To maintain certification, CPP's have several options, including:

  APA membership provides 3 RCH annually.

How Certification Helps Your Company

Helping your employees and managers achieve their CPP certification helps your company improve their productivity and sets standards for your workers' quality of payroll services. The higher-level knowledge and CPP expertise reduce payroll mistakes, regulatory and legal errors, and implementation problems that could cost your company more money in the long run.

Certification also builds key employee loyalty and helps you retain higher performing managers and employees, especially when accreditation is reimbursed or provided as a company benefit.

Criterion has a complete range of payroll, talent management, HR products, systems, and services available if you're looking for additional aid. Call or connect with us online for more information or to request a demo.

Steve Kuhn
Chief Sales Officer
Senior Sales Professional with 20+ years of strong executive experience, selling software solutions and building relationships in Enterprise and Mid-Market.

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