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The best tech certifications for every IT professional

Tech certifications can launch your tech career, establish your credentials, or land you a promotion. Find 2021's must-have certifications here.

IT certifications can help professionals break into the field, stand out in the competitive job market, and pursue higher-level, lucrative positions. 

Whether you're new to tech and looking for a basic certification or a seasoned pro who wants to receive recognition for your specialized skills and experience, there's a certification for you.

While the best tech certifications are those that serve your experience and career goals, these credentials can help you secure a more lucrative job in IT. Certifications in IT help you tout your skill set so you can vie for raises and qualify for better-paying positions.

On this page, you'll find an exploration of the best tech certifications available in 2021. You'll discover different types of IT certifications, what you'll need to prepare for certification exams, and where to learn more.

What is a certification?

Earning a certification means that you've passed an exam or met the standards of an industry via an assessment process. Certifications usually require some work experience and help you verify your mastery in a specific area. Most aren't connected to an academic institution or degree. 

Certificates in the tech field serve as credit or noncredit-based proof of completion of an education program. Some are offered via colleges or other institutions. They can prepare you for specific careers or further education, or help you develop specialized knowledge. Some certificate programs also award a credential upon completion.

Learners with little or no experience can pursue entry-level certificate programs. However, most certifications require relevant professional experience.

What's the difference between certifications and degrees?

Academic institutions offer programs for degree-seekers. Certifications, on the other hand, come from third-party providers who meet industry-wide specifications. Providers may include research institutes, professional associations, or large corporations such as Amazon and Google. 

Associate and bachelor's degrees often take two and four years to complete, respectively. These programs offer a broad education in a field. Many colleges and universities today offer IT degree programs that also prepare you to sit for IT certification exams.

By comparison, certifications focus on specific skills and build upon experience you already possess. 

Preparation for a certification exam depends on your needs, experience, and how long you choose to study. Every learner is different, but you should plan on 2-4 months of preparation before each certification exam. Some prep programs take up to six months to complete.

Which certification is right for you?

There are dozens of valuable certifications available today, so how do you know which one is the best tech certification for you? Would a certification help you stand out from the crowd or help you prove your IT expertise? There are a few things to keep in mind as you explore options.

First, consider your depth of knowledge and experience. Since certifications are not necessary for every role in IT, find one that will help you expand your knowledge or validate your skills in a particular area. 

Second, does a certification fit your schedule and budget? Certification providers usually offer online, hybrid, and in-person preparation courses. The cost varies among certifications, and not all providers allow you to take the certification exam remotely. 

Tech certification cost

Tech certification costs vary by provider, platform and location. 

Some certification programs charge for study materials and practice exams. Some elearning platforms that host certification prep programs offer a free trial period. 

Depending on the exam fee and whether you pay for prep materials, you can spend $150-$1,200 per certification. Most exam fees are $330-$500.

Must-have certifications in 2021

The following list contains some of the best IT certifications for tech professionals. We chose programs from widely recognized providers and certifications, ranging from entry-level to popular advanced certifications. 

Bear in mind that this list is not all-inclusive. No certification meets every professional's career goals or role. 

The time it takes to earn these certifications depends on how much self-prep you do and preparation classes you choose to take.

Basic certifications

Entry-level tech certifications best serve professionals who wish to break into the IT field. They can also provide a strong foundation for workers early in their careers who want to seek out new or specialized roles in IT. With a basic certification and work experience, you can pursue more advanced certifications later on.

Google IT Support Certificate

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shironosov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Time to complete: ~6 months

Cost: $39/month

Exam required: No

This fully online certificate program helps students learn skills for entry-level IT jobs. Training includes instruction in wireless networking, customer service, program installation, and computer assembly. You can expect to spend about 10 or fewer study hours per week in these classes. Test-takers do not need prior IT work experience.

Cisco Certified Network Associate

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Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $300

Exam required: Yes

This certification suits professionals with knowledge and skills in network access, IP connectivity, security fundamentals, automation, programmability, and network fundamentals. Learners must complete one training course, which grants a level 200 training badge and 30 continuing education credits, before taking the exam.

Microsoft Technology Associate — IT Infrastructure certifications

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By The Art of Pics -- Shutterstock

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $127 each

Exam required: Yes

Microsoft offers certifications in Windows operating system, server administration, networking, and security fundamentals. Test-takers need at least a fundamental knowledge of operating system concepts in Windows 10.

CompTIA Security+

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Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $370

Exam required: Yes

This certification validates your hands-on skills when it comes to cybersecurity measures, including risk assessment, enterprise networks, hybrid and cloud operations, forensics, and incident response. This is a good choice for learners with existing work experience in cybersecurity.

CompTIA Network+

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Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $338

Exam required: Yes

This certificate best suits learners interested in IT infrastructure jobs with skills in network configuration, troubleshooting, security, and network management. The exam also covers ethernet solutions, configuring wireless technologies, and optimizing networks for business continuity. Test-takers should possess at least nine months of networking experience.

Google UX Design Certificate

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NicoElNino, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Time to complete: ~6 months

Cost: $39/month

Exam required: No

This beginner-level, seven-course program helps students develop essential skills in UX research and design, usability testing, Adobe, XD, wireframes, and prototypes. The program includes over 200 hours of instruction and helps students develop a UX portfolio.

Programming certifications

Certifications in programming languages demonstrate your mastery of new technologies and languages. Even if your portfolio demonstrates your programming language skills, a programming certification may help distinguish you in the competitive job market.

PCPP1 (Certified Professional in Python Programming 1)

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(Image: Shutterstock)

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $195

Exam required: Yes

This certificate benefits workers with experience in areas including advanced programming with Python, object-oriented programming, graphical user interface programming, and network programming. The certification also covers xml modules and csv modules. Prospective test-takers must possess a certified associate in python programming certificate.

Certified JavaScript Developer

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(Image: Shutterstock)

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $89

Exam required: Yes 

The certification requires learners to possess advanced JavaScript skills in areas including data types, control structures, object-oriented programming, and indexed collections. Current programmers and web developers with at least foundational knowledge in JavaScript can sit for the exam with some preparation and self-study.

CPA (C++ Certified Associate Programmer Certification)

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(Image: Shutterstock)

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $59

Exam required: Yes 

This certification shows your mastery of completing coding tasks with C++. Exam candidates should possess advanced skills in the semantics and syntax of C++ programming, object-oriented models, and solving implementation programs using standard C++ language libraries.

Zend Certified PHP Engineer

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(Image: Shutterstock)

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $195

Exam required: Yes

This certification best serves programmers interested in bolstering their resume for employers. The exam tests your knowledge of 11 major topics, including strings and patterns, databases and SQL, error handling, and object-oriented programming. Learners can choose from optional online directed or self-study programs for additional fees.

Certified MATLAB Associate

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Getty Images/iStockphoto

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $53

Exam required: Yes 

This certification demonstrates your mastery of the MATLAB user interface and objectives such as variables and commands, analysis and visualization with vectors, dates and times, and tables of data. MathWorks recommends that certification-seekers complete a three-day comprehensive course to help them prepare for the exam. 

Other advanced certifications

Advanced certifications test for hard-earned skills gained during years of working in a particular area or field. To employers, they signal a deep familiarity with the certification's subject.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate

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(Image: Krblokhin / Getty Images)

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $150

Exam required: Yes

Amazon recommends this certificate for anyone with one or more years of experience designing scalable distributed, fault-tolerant, cost-efficient systems on AWS. They should also have experience with networking, storage, and database AWS services. Learners can choose between paid and free exam preparation materials.

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

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Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $100

Exam required: Yes 

The CEH certificate best serves professionals working as security officers, site administrators, auditors, and most IT security professionals. Certification-seekers must be at least 18 years old. You also need CEH certification in version 1-7, two years of work experience in information security, or  to have completed official EC-Council training.

CISSP — Certified Information Systems Security Professional

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Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $749

Exam required: Yes 

The CISSP certification shows that you can design, implement, and manage an effective cybersecurity program. Experienced security practitioners benefit from this certification, including those employed as security managers, chief information security officers, IT directors, network architects, and security analysts. 

Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect

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By SFIO CRACHO -- Shutterstock

Time to complete: 3 months

Cost: $200

Exam required: Yes

This program for learners with three or more years of industry experience features hands-on labs and video demos to help you prepare for the certificate exam. Instruction includes how to develop cloud solution architecture, manage infrastructure, follow safety protocols, and optimize business and technical processes. 

Google Certified Professional Data Engineer

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Time to complete: 4 months

Cost: $200

Exam required: Yes 

Learners with three or more years of industry experience, including at least one year of designing and managing solutions using Google Cloud, may sit for this two-hour certificate exam. The six-course program incorporates hands-on learning labs using the Qwiklabs platform.

PMP — Project Management Professional

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kasto80, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $405-$555

Exam required: Yes

As one of the leading project management credentials, the PMP certification shows your mastery of agile, predictive, and hybrid approaches. The 230-minute exam tests your soft skills, technical abilities pertaining to project management, and organizational strategies.

What is the best technical certificate?

The best tech certificate for each professional depends on their career goals and experience. If you want to expand your knowledge in a particular field area or obtain credentials to seek out a new position, choose your certification based on those desires.

Are tech certifications worth it?

Yes. In many cases, IT certifications can help you break into the IT field, gain more experience or skills for your current position, or boost your salary.

What certifications pay the most?

Certifications do not guarantee a particular salary or raise, but many professionals experience a healthy return on their investment. Valuable credentials include Google's certified professional data engineer and certified professional cloud architect certifications. Check out these 15 high-ROI IT certifications for more information.