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Best IT certifications for all career stages

Learn how these respected and high-ROI information technology certificates and certifications can lead to better jobs in IT, plus certification costs.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor on

IT certifications offer a quick and relatively inexpensive way to enter or enhance an IT career. These credentials may focus on entry-level fundamentals or system and network concentrations for management and specialized careers.

Information technology certifications can provide professionals with the training, skills, and credentials necessary to enter the IT field or move within it. 

Today, skilled IT professionals are in high demand and benefit from remote working opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% growth for all computer occupations between 2020 and 2030. The computer and information technology sector pays median annual wages of $91,250. 

Throughout this page, we explore the value of IT certifications and examine some of the leading credentials for entry-level and experienced IT professionals, plus the certifications with the highest earning potential.

What is information technology?

Information technology includes the hardware, software, and devices that store, process, and manage information. Studies in this field cover the uses, implementation, and optimization of these technologies.

Within many organizations, IT departments take on responsibilities including: 

Operations: Operations professionals focus on providing technical support to users, managing and maintaining network performance, and device management. 

Infrastructure installation and maintenance: Infrastructure professionals implement and configure systems and devices. They provide troubleshooting and maintenance when required. 

Governance: Governance professionals oversee the IT policies and procedures within an organization. They establish IT strategies and goals and provide leadership.

What is an IT certification?

IT certifications exhibit a professional's mastery over a specific discipline, technology, or field. The credentials may feature both condensed training and an exam or only one of these components. 

IT certifications may provide entry-level, intermediate, or advanced training and credentials.

Professionals can pursue certifications to enter the IT field, change positions, or advance their careers. 

The credentials can showcase a professional's expertise with a specific vendor's technology, which may be extremely valuable for employers who use those systems.

They also demonstrate determination and drive for personal and professional improvement. 

IT certification cost

The cost of an IT certification varies. Some platforms feature a monthly fee, such as Coursera, which charges between $29-$99. First-time participants can get a free trial period.

Most certifications have an exam fee between $99-$999. These credentials often allow candidates to study on their own for free, though paid study materials or instructor-led classes are usually available. 

What's the difference between certifications and degrees in information technology?

Though they can have similar outcomes, IT certifications and degrees feature significant differences. 

In contrast to highly focused and accelerated certifications, degrees combine general education and core training over 2- to 4-year periods. Many information technology degrees offer specialization options and courses like information systems fundamentals, enterprise network design, and cybersecurity. 

While both associate degrees and certain certifications can lead to entry-level careers, many advanced and high-paying IT roles require a bachelor's degree in IT or higher. 

What's the difference between information technology certificates and certifications?

An information technology certificate is an education program thattrains learners in a specific IT field. Compared to degree-granting IT programs, an information technology certificate takes less time and does not include general education courses. Most certificate programs take 4-12 months. 

Certifications are granted by third-party providers who meet industry-wide specifications, while a certificate is generally earned through a college or other learning platform. Both undergraduate and graduate certificates are available. 

By comparison, a certification generally does not require classes. Instead, candidates meet experience or education prerequisites and pass an examination. 

Some certificate programs offer a credential upon completion, including the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate in the list below.

Must-have certifications in 2021

With so many certifications to choose from, IT professionals can find the selection process challenging. To help simplify matters, we picked out the most widely recognized and sought-after credentials available. The following lists highlight some of the best entry-level, specialized, and high-earning certifications on the market.

Entry-level IT certifications

Entry-level certifications can open the door to the IT industry for aspiring professionals without any previous education or experience. With a mixture of foundational and specialized training, these credentials may help candidates change careers and can lead to more advanced training and credentials in the future. 

NicoElNino, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Time to complete: Approximately six months

Cost: $39/month 

Exam required? No

Designed to prepare graduates for entry-level IT support positions, this certificate equips participants with troubleshooting, debugging, and program installation skills. The training covers Linux, Domain Name Systems, and cloud computing. No previous experience is required. 

Time to complete: Approximately eight months

Cost: $39/month

Exam required? No

This certificate teaches aspiring IT support specialists how to write Python script that automates IT solutions and administrative tasks. The training also covers Git, GitHub, IT resource management, and troubleshooting and debugging. No previous experience is required.

Time to complete: Eight days + 120-minute exam

Cost: $300

Exam required? Yes

Developed for aspiring IT and networking professionals, this certification provides participants with knowledge of Cisco network components, IP services, and security. Candidates often possess Cisco solutions experience and knowledge of network fundamentals and IP addressing.  

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $127

Exam required? Yes

Microsoft Technology Associate certifications cover infrastructure fundamentals in areas including operating systems, networking, Windows server administration, and security. These certifications can lead to careers in IT support and administration for desktop, cloud computing, and servers. Candidates taking each exam should have experience and familiarity with the major concepts and fundamentals.

Cloud technology certifications

Cloud technologies give users access to various computing services whenever and wherever they need them. Certified professionals in this field can access some of the most in-demand computer occupations. The following are some of the best certifications in this field.

By DANIEL CONSTANTE -- Shutterstock

Time to complete: Two days + 45-minute exam

Cost: $99

Exam required? Yes

This certification acknowledges professionals with knowledge of Microsoft Azure services, support, and security. Candidates possess an understanding of the integrated management tools and solutions, along with the network and compliance features. There are no exam prerequisites other than understanding the material.

Time to complete: Varies

Cost: $165

Exam required? Yes

This certification prepares professionals to govern an organization's cloud infrastructure and resources. It demonstrates skills in implementing and managing Microsoft Azure environments.  Candidates should possess at least six months of experience using Microsoft Azure and related systems.

IT security certifications

IT security certifications credentials prepare professionals to protect organizational information, develop advanced security programs, and establish risk management strategies. Certified professionals can pursue roles in management or as cybersecurity specialists. 

Time to complete: Approximately eight months + exam

Cost: $49/month

Exam required? Yes

Designed for cybersecurity analysts, this certification prepares professionals to protect data and endpoints, collect security data, and leverage open source tools. Certificate-holders learn to identify database vulnerabilities, prevent malware attacks, and detect and handle cyberthreats. No previous experience is required. 

By JLStock -- Shutterstock

Time to complete: 90-minute exam + study time

Cost: $370 - $949

Exam required? 

Ideal for IT professionals who want to demonstrate cybersecurity expertise, this certification covers threat and vulnerability detection, program design and implementation, and incident response. Certified professionals also master organizational risk management & regulations compliance. Experience is not mandatory, but two years of IT and security experience is recommended.

Network certifications

Network certifications focus on improving business communications and networks. 

Credentialed professionals know how to design, implement, manage, and optimize networks for organizations, leading to careers in network administration, analysis, and management.

Time to complete: Approximately 16 days of training +two 120-minute exams

Cost: $400

Exam required? Yes

This certification prepares professionals to take on roles dedicated to enterprise networking technologies. The core training and exam equip learners to handle dual-stack architecture, network assurance, and security. 

Concentrations are available in advanced routing, wireless networks, and automation. There are no prerequisites, but many candidates possess between 3-5 years of experience with enterprise networking solutions. 

Time to complete: Recommended three-day course + 90-minute exam

Cost: $200

Exam required? Yes

Made for networking professionals, this certification covers the Juniper Networks Junos operating system. The credential recognizes those who understand the system fundamentals and interfaces, can configure Junos devices, and can identify routing concepts and policies. An optional training course is recommended prior to taking the exam. 


Time to complete: 90 minutes + study time

Cost: $338 - $999

Exam required? Yes

Built for aspiring network troubleshooters and administrators, this certification recognizes professionals who have a grasp of networking concepts, devices, security, and operations. CompTIA recommends test-takers have nine months of networking experience and a solid handle on the exam material before testing.

Highest Paying IT Certifications

Many IT certifications lead to promising careers, but some offer greater financial rewards than others. Through a survey with 3,700 U.S.-based respondents, Global Knowledge found professionals holding the following IT certifications reported the best ROI and highest average salaries. 

Readers should note that salaries may be dependent on experience, employers, performance, and location. 

Time to complete: Two-hour exam + study time

Cost: $200

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $171,749

Created to recognize data engineering expertise, this certification acknowledges professionals who can design, build, and manage data processing systems. The credential focuses on machine learning models, compliance, and security. Google recommends that test-takers possess at least three years of professional experience and one year of experience with Google Cloud.

Time to complete: Two-hour exam + study time

Cost: $200

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $169,029

This certification acknowledges professionals who provide business solutions using Google Cloud technologies. The exam covers cloud solutions design and planning, security, reliability, and management. Google recommends that professionals possess at least three years of industry experience and one year of Google Cloud experience before testing.

Time to complete: 130-minute exam + study time

Cost: $150

Exam required? 

Average salary: $159,033

This certification affirms professionals' skills in AWS cloud systems and solutions. The exam covers designing and implementation of distributed systems, including AWS security, networking, and compliance requirements. AWS recommends that test-takers have at least one year of experience using AWS technologies. 

Time to complete: Four-hour exam + study time

Cost: $575 for members and $760 for non-members

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $151,995

Developed for IT risk management and security professionals, this certification demonstrates an understanding of risk monitoring and threat mitigation. The credential covers information systems governance, assessment, security, and risk response and reporting. For certification, professionals need at least three years of relevant professional experience.

Time to complete: Three-hour exam + study time

Cost: $749

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $151,853

Awarded to IT professionals who can design and manage effective cybersecurity programs, this certification covers risk management, architecture and engineering, assessment and testing, and software development. The requirements for certification include a minimum of five years of experience in at least two CISSP domains. 

Time to complete: Four-hour exam + study time

Cost: $575 for members and $760 for non-members

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $149,246

This certification recognizes professionals who can design and manage information security programs. The credential also covers governance, risk and incident management, and compliance. Qualifying for certification requires at least five years of information security management experience.

Time to complete: 35 contact hours of training + 230-minute exam + study time

Cost: $405 for members and $555 for non-members

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $148,906

Built for experienced project managers, this certification acknowledges professionals with skills using predictive, Agile, and hybrid management methodologies. Certified professionals demonstrate expertise in planning, controlling, and closing projects. For eligibility, professionals need a four-year degree and three years of management experience or 60 months of management experience. 

Time to complete: Two-hour exam + study time

Cost: $199

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $142,810

This certification validates a professional's abilities to manage and troubleshoot Nutanix AOS 5.15. The exam tests on enterprise cloud concepts and managing and securing clusters. Though not required, ideal candidates have at least 3-6 months of experience with AOS and 1-2 years of experience with general systems.

Time to complete: Four-hour exam + study time

Cost: $575 for members and $760 for non-members

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $134,460

Acknowledging professionals who monitor, control, and assess business IT systems, this certification covers the auditing process, IT governance, systems development and implementation, and asset protection. For certification, professionals need at least five years of auditing or related experience. 

Time to complete: 130-minute exam + study time

Cost: $250

Exam required? Yes

Average salary: $132,947

This certification demonstrates an understanding of vSphere infrastructure best practices, implementation, and management skills. Credentialed professionals can install, configure, troubleshoot, and secure the virtualization platform. 

Which IT certification is right for you?

When choosing between the many IT certifications, candidates should consider multiple factors to ensure they pick the best-suited option for them. First, they should evaluate their current level and strengths. Next, they should think about their career goals and identify what credentials and training they need in order to reach that level. 

Equipped with that information, candidates can search the available certifications, sorting by relevance, industry recognition and acceptance of the credential, cost, and delivery format. 

While IT certifications do not typically pursue or receive accreditation, they may still be recognized by noteworthy organizations, such as professional industry associations or specific vendors. Candidates can research what type of industry recognition certifications have received to ensure they get the best credential available.

What are the best IT certs to get?

The best IT certifications depend on the candidate's career goals. Many employers rank certain certifications above others depending on their usefulness to the organization, such as those that provide relevant vendor- and system-specific training. 

Can you get an IT job with just certifications?

Yes. Professionals with an IT certification as their only relevant training can access some entry-level IT careers.

What IT certifications pay the most?

The highest-paying IT certifications depend on the credentialed professional's experience, employer, and location. According to Global Knowledge, professionals holding a Google Certified Professional Data Engineer credential report some of the highest average wages at $171,749.

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