The Uniform CPA Examination "protects the public interest by helping to ensure that only qualified individuals become licensed as US Certified Public Accountants (CPA's)". Most CPA's and eligible candidates will agree that it is a very difficult and time consuming set of tests. The candidate must get a score of 75 or higher on each section within an 18 month window. The 2014 first quarter pass rates were right around 50%.
The CPA exam is a four part exam that consists of Auditing (AUD), Business Environment (BEC), Financial Accounting (FAR), Regulation (REG). Most candidates takes each exam separately. The test times range from 3-4 hours each. There are multiple choice, simulations, and written communication (BEC).
Most candidates will purchase review courses to help prepare them for the exam. There are a handful of companies that provide these courses for the student to purchase (Roger CPA Review, Becker, Bisk, etc). The review courses range in pricing ($1,000-$5,000) and style. Which exam review course you choose really depends on the type of learner you are. All of the companies will offer you a trial for you to test it out. Some give you more direction and structure that others. It's important to pick the course that is right for you. Remember, most expensive does not always mean better.
Most sections and review courses recommend studying 4-6 weeks for each section. Every third month is a "black out month", meaning you are not able to sit. For example, October and November are open to sit, December is not. It's important to look at a calendar when planning to take the exam. As mentioned above, you MUST pass all 4 sections in 18 months. If you do not plan accordingly, it is possible to lose credit for a section that you have previously passed.
You are licensed in the state that your practice. In addition to the purchase of the exam review course, North Carolina's exam cost between $172-192 for each section, plus an administrative fee of $230 for each test ($402-$422 total for each test). This would be the cost your pay to sit for each exam. If you do not pass, you must re-apply and pay these fees again with the administrative fee dropping to $75 ($247-$267 total for each test). You can opt to pay for all four sections up front which would allow you to pay only one administrative fee. The only catch is, you MUST take all four sections within a 6 month time period. This is possible depending on what else you have going on in life.
Once you pass, you can complete the process within your state to become licensed.