CFA® Exam Overview and Guidelines (Updated for 2021)

The Chartered Financial Analyst or CFA program is a professional certification issued to financial and investment professionals by the CFA Institute. Candidates who seek the charter must take the exam at Level I, Level II  and Level III.  In addition to clearing the exams, the candidate must show that they have a minimum of four years of full-time working experience in the financial or investment sector, before they are awarded the charter.

The paper was previously always conducted in a paper format. Starting in 2021, the CFA exam is shifting to a computer-based format only. 

The CFA exam is split into three levels. The  key areas covered by the curriculum include quantitative methods, ethical and professional standards, corporate finance, fixed income, economics, financial reporting and analysis, equity investments, derivatives, alternative investments and portfolio management and wealth planning.

Exam Prerequisites

Exam candidates must meet one of the following enrollment criteria:

  • Have a Bachelor's degree from a college or university


  • Be a final year student at the time of registering for the Level I program. Degree must be completed before Level II.


  • Have 48 months or 4 years as a full-time professional who is paid for their services. The work experience must be successive. Part-time work and internships do not qualify.

In addition to the above criteria:

  • Candidates must have a valid international passport.
  • Candidates must be proficient in English. The exam is only conducted in English.
  • Candidates must complete a Professional Conduct Statement form.
  • Candidates must live in a participating country. The institute cannot conduct business with students of certain countries. 


A one-time enrollment fee of $450 is to be paid during registering for Level I exam. The payment should be made in US dollars only. Apart from the one-time enrollment fee, the standard registration fee for Level I is $1000. A  fee of $700 is available for early bird registration. In the event of the candidate wanting to reschedule the exam a rescheduling fee of $ 250 will be charged.

Level I exam

Time duration of the computer based exam, Level I: 4.5 hrs

The CFA Level 1 exam will have 180 multiple choice questions, split between two sessions with an optional break. Each session will be 135 minutes long and contains 90 questions.

The exam format includes questions with sentence completion and questions with unique responses.

This exam tests the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of investment tools, in addition to professional and ethical standards.

The 10 topics covered in the exam are ethical and professional standards, quantitative methods, economics, financial reporting, corporate finance, equity investments, fixed income, derivatives, alternative investments and portfolio management. 

Results are available within 60 days of taking the exam.

Level II Exam

Time duration of the computer based exam, Level II: 4.5 hrs

The Level II exam format has case studies (with data tables, graphs in some)  with multiple questions that have 4 to 6 items. All the questions will require the candidate to refer to the case study. The questions themselves are free-standing.

The curriculum for the Level II exam includes ethical and professional standards, corporate finance, economics, financial reporting and analysis, quantitative methods, alternative investments, derivatives, equity investments, fixed income and portfolio management.

The 2020 Level II program has 48 readings. 8 readings from the 2019 syllabus were axed and 5 new readings were added. The new readings include machine learning, Big data projects, Corporate Governance & Other ESG Considerations in Investment Analysis, The Mechanics & ApplicationsExchange-Traded Funds, and Trading Costs and Electronic Markets.

Results are available within 60 days of taking the exam.

Level III Exam

Time duration of the computer based exam, Level III: 4.5 hrs

The format of the Level III exam has essay type questions and item sets. 

The curriculum covers ethics, portfolio management (part 1 and 2), economics, derivatives, fixed income, equity and alternative investments. In all the 2020 curriculum has 38 readings.

Results are available within 90 days of taking the exam.

Computer-based testing for the CFA exam, 2021

The December 2020 exam will be the CFA institute’s last paper-based exam. The institute is shifting to computer-based testing, so as to allow students take up the exam while maintaining social distancing norms.

The proctored exams will take place across 400+ testing centres globally. 

(A proctored exam is supervised by an approved person or proctor who checks the identity of the test taker and the integrity of the test taking environment) 

The schedule for the computer based tests in 2021 are:

  • The Level one exam can be taken 4 times in a year, or one in each quarter. The Level II and Level III exams can be taken every alternate quarter or twice in a year.
  • February , May, August and November for Level I
  • May and August for Level II
  • May and November for Level III

The test will take 5.5hrs from start to finish. 30 minutes will be provided at the beginning of the exam to pledge, tutorial and survey. An optional break of 30 minutes between two 135 minute sessions will be provided.

The CFA institute will be sharing more details as the months progress. You can visit their site for the latest updates.

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