So You Want to Get Started in Cisco Certs - Now What?

Choosing the Best Path Towards CCNA

You finally made the commitment to starting your Cisco certification journey, or at least you're leaning that way. Thousands of people start this journey every month, and they all have to get through some of the same basic decisions. What is the starting point? What Cisco certifications can I start with? What do I have to do to pass each? What specific steps, and tools, will I need? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? Today, I'll start to break down some of these questions. And if you've been there, done that, got the T-shirt, you can chime in and help those new to Cisco.

(For you other literal-minded people out there, no, Cisco doesn't give you a T-shirt for getting your first Cisco cert.)

First Step: Routing and Switching

Big picture: you start Cisco certs by learning the basics of IP routing and LAN switching. Cisco started out as a routing company in the 1980s, added switching in the early/mid 1990s. Since that time, Cisco has added other technology areas, so as you walk through this journey, you will have opportunities for Cisco certs in Wireless, Security, Voice, Service Provider, Data Center, and maybe other areas. But to start with Cisco, you start with routing and switching.

Requiring that you start with some route/switch oriented cert is both good and bad. If you don't know a lot of networking when you start, you don't have to choose a technology area before you learned much about Cisco networking. To start with Cisco, you start with route/switch. But if you already know another area, say voice, and you really just want Cisco voice certifications, you still have to start with route/switch, at least from a certification perspective.

The basic process to get a Cisco cert is to take and pass the exams associated with that cert. Each cert has one or more exams associated with it. You take the exams sitting at a computer at a facility affiliated with the Vue testing service ( That is, you register for an exam, pay some $, and on that day, you show up on site to take your exam. So, to be ready for a particular exam, you need to know the technology of course, but you also need to know as much as you can about the test environment. Most of your prep time will need to focus on the technology, but you should also use the tools at to help you understand the testing environment.


Now let's zoom in a bit on one specific certification: Cisco Certified Network Associate. Announced in 1998, this cert acts as the pre-requisite for all the other Cisco certs. So if you want to start your Cisco certification journey so you can get certs on other Cisco technology areas, or to get deeper certs like CCNP and CCIE, then you need to get your CCNA.

Cisco provides two paths to get your CCNA certification: a 2-exam path, and a 1-exam path, as shown in the figure. Cisco names each exam, and gives each exam a number as well. Each time Cisco makes a revision to the certification, Cisco re-numbers the exams. The current CCNA cert is the 5th major version of the CCNA certification (although Cisco doesn't give certs version numbers).

Focusing on CCNA, you just choose to take one of the two paths. Both paths cover the same topics to the same depth. The 2-exam path lets you split the topics into two separate exams. At some point, you will need to choose one of these two paths. I'll hit the pros/cons at the end of today's post.

An important aside as you start this journey, note that most of the Cisco cert exams have one Cisco authorized course, often with the same name, associated with them. For instance, the ICND1 exam is associated with Cisco's ICND1 course. You don't have to take the course, but if you do, it helps you prepare for the exam. ICND1 and ICND2 are both 5-day courses - so taking the CCNA exam, that includes topics from both courses/exams, can be a lot to tackle at once. In general, most Cisco cert exams that have associated courses are 4 or 5-day courses.


The next wrinkle to add here is that Cisco includes another certification that at first glance appears to be Cisco's entry-level cert: the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT). You get a CCENT cert for passing the ICND1 exam. So, you can think of a CCENT cert as being on the first half of the CCNA topics.

As for pure mechanics, CCENT can only be attained by passing the ICND1 exam, and CCENT is not a prerequisite for any other Cisco cert.  So, if you really want CCNA, and if you use the 2-exam path to CCNA, you will get a CCENT cert when you pass the ICND1 exam. However, if you take the CCNA exam instead, you do not get a CCENT cert.


So, once question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to go after CCNA or CCENT as an end to itself. First, CCENT as an end-goal makes sense if:

  • You want to have much broader skills, so you want just a little more networking knowledge
  • You want jobs that require the ability to talk with network engineers, but you don't want to be one
  • You want to test the waters, and this is the least time/$ to get at least one Cisco cert

Otherwise, you'll want to pursue CCNA. CCNA - not CCENT - is the prerequisite for most other Cisco certs. And CCNA is typically the minimum you can list on a resume' to get the hiring manager's interest for a job that includes networking.


To be complete, I must at least mention Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA). This certification has no pre-requisites, so technically, you could start here instead of either CCENT or CCNA. However, while Cisco does not require a CCNA cert as a prerequisite, the Cisco web site states that you need to have CCNA skills as a prerequisite. CCDA includes topics about routing and switching, but from a design perspective. So, to get a CCDA, you would most likely learn the stuff you need for CCNA anyway - so most people start with CCNA.

CCNA - 1-Exam or 2-Exam?

Today's post starts with the assumption that you've chosen to pursue Cisco certifications. From there, we've discussed the three main options: CCNA, CCENT, and CCDA:

  • CCNA: most popular choice
  • CCENT: less popular but reasonable
  • CCDA: Realistically, start with CCNA

To wrap up today's post, let's talk about the 1-exam or 2-exam decision. First, and most importantly, you don't have to make your 1-exam or 2-exam choice immediately. You would likely use the same study tools regardless of whether you plan to take 1 exam or 2. However, at some point in your study - say around the 25% complete mark - you may want to study differently depending on which path you take. So if you're a bit unsure today, you can at least get your first book or video series, and start with that, while mulling over the choice.

As you start to work through the study materials, consider the following when making your decision. First, consider these reasons to choose the 2-exam path:

  • It's too much material to remember at once for one exam.
  • I'm taking my first Cisco exam as "practice", expecting to fail, and ICND1 is much cheaper than the CCNA exam.
  • My class is covering the ICND1 materials first.
  • I'm completely new to Cisco and/or networking
  • I'm motivated to study knowing that the exam is coming soon, and taking 2 exams will help me stay motivated

Next, some reasons to use the 1-exam path:

  • I've got some relevant experience, so covering all in 1 exam is not as daunting.
  • My class is geared towards prepping for the 1-exam option.
  • I have a good memory and/or I'm a good test taker
  • I'm pretty self-motivated, and don't need to extra motivation of taking the ICND1 exam first

All you experienced folks, chime in here as to other reasons to pursue one or the other.


You may have noticed that I didn't list cost as a pro/con for either path. First, the cost varies depending on where you are in the world. In the USA, the ICND1 and ICND2 exams are $125 each, with the CCNA exam at $250. However, because you cannot predict how many you might fail, it's hard to predict which path is cheaper. For instance:

  • No fails: $250 either path
  • Fail the first, pass the rest: $500 for the 1-exam path, and $375 for the 2-exam path
  • Fail the first take, pass the 2nd, for each exam: $500 for both paths

So, it's hard to make a choice of 1-exam or 2-exam based on exam cost. However, there is a time cost, and potentially a travel cost. Depending on where you live, getting to a testing center may require more travel time and cost. To find the closest testing centers that support Cisco exams, check out and set up an ID. Then, go ahead and follow the registration process, but don't complete it. Along the way, you'll be able to see a list of the closest testing centers.

How About You?

So, what do you think? What's the right place to start for you? Tell us your choice in the poll, and tell us why with your comments.

Related Posts:

What to Consider After PAssing CCNA

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