Internal Audit vs. External Audit: What’s the Difference?

internal audit vs external audit

As a professional Chicago-based CPA firm offering comprehensive audit services, we understand that navigating the intricacies of business audits can be challenging and even intimidating, especially if you don't understand how an internal or external audit functions. In this blog post, we'll shed light on the fundamental distinctions between an internal and external audit. Both play crucial roles in assessing a company's financial health and ensuring compliance, but they differ in scope, purpose, and approach. Clarity on these differences allows business owners a clearer understanding of each type of audit and how they contribute to the overall financial integrity of an organization. Let's dive into the world of audits!

What Is an Internal Audit?

An internal audit is an essential component of a company's corporate governance and risk management processes. It involves an independent and objective evaluation of an organization's internal controls, risk management, and governance processes. Internal auditors, who are employees of the company rather than a third-party auditor, conduct these assessments to ensure that the organization's operations comply with relevant policies, procedures, and regulations.

The primary focus of internal audits is to provide valuable insights and recommendations to management for improving internal controls, risk mitigation, and overall efficiency. The internal auditor reviews financial reports and records, operational processes, and risk management practices to find potential weaknesses and areas for improvement. This proactive approach helps organizations enhance their operations, protect assets, and achieve their strategic objectives through improved business practices.

Pros of an Internal Audit

  • In-House Expertise: Internal auditors have an in-depth understanding of the organization's operations, processes, and risks which enables them to identify specific areas that require attention.
  • Tailored Approach: Internal auditors can customize their audit plans to suit the organization's unique needs and objectives, focusing on key areas of concern.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Internal audit functions can provide ongoing assessments and insights which allows for real-time risk management and prompt action.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Maintaining an internal audit management team may be more cost-effective in the long run, especially for larger organizations with complex operations.

Cons of an Internal Audit

  • Lack of Independence: Internal auditors may face challenges in maintaining complete independence due to their direct affiliation with the organization, potentially impacting objectivity and detracting from an independent opinion.
  • Limited Resources: Smaller businesses may struggle to establish a robust internal audit function with sufficient expertise and resources.
  • Potential Bias: Internal auditors may develop personal or professional relationships with employees which leads to potential biases that could affect their audit findings.
  • Scope Limitations: Internal audits might not have the resources or authority to investigate certain areas, such as external transactions or complex financial instruments.

What Is an External Audit?

internal and external audits

An external audit, also known as an independent audit or an external financial audit, is a comprehensive and impartial examination of a company's financial records and statements conducted by an external auditing firm. This process is carried out by Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) who have no direct affiliation with the organization being audited. The main objective of an external audit is to provide an unbiased assessment of the company's financial position, accuracy of financial statements, and compliance with relevant accounting standards and regulations.

Pros of an External Audit

  • Independence: External auditors are independent and impartial to ensure unbiased evaluations of financial records.
  • Credibility: When an organization's financial statements and budget statements are audited, it enhances the credibility of the company in the eyes of stakeholders and investors.
  • Compliance Verification: External audits ensure compliance with accounting principles and legal regulations.
  • Risk Identification: They help identify financial risks and potential areas of improvement for better financial management.
  • Investor Confidence: A clean external audit report instills confidence in potential investors.

Cons of an External Audit

  • Cost: Hiring external auditors can be expensive, especially for smaller businesses.
  • Time-Consuming: External audits can be time-consuming, affecting regular business operations.
  • Disruption: The audit process might disrupt the normal workflow and business activities.
  • Limited Scope: External financial audits might not cover every aspect of the organization's internal controls.
  • Limited Insights: External auditors might not have in-depth knowledge of the company's operations and culture.

An Internal Audit vs. External Audit

Let's break down the key differences between internal audits and external audits. Learn which audit type suits your organization's needs best, from reporting lines and objectives to regulatory requirements.

An Internal Audit vs. External Audit

Reporting Lines and Independence

Reporting lines and independence play a pivotal role in differentiating between internal audit and external audit processes.

Internal Audit: Internal auditors are part of the organization's internal structure, reporting directly to the management or the board of directors. This proximity and internal control allow them to have a comprehensive understanding of the company's operations, processes, and risk areas. However, their position within the organization may create challenges in maintaining complete objectivity and independence. Internal auditors may face pressure or influence from management that potentially affects the thoroughness of their internal audit report findings.

External Audit: In contrast, an external audit is conducted by an independent, third-party auditing firm or independent auditor that has no direct ties to the organization being audited. This external independence ensures that auditors can objectively assess the financial statements without any bias or undue influence. External auditors follow a strict code of ethics and professional standards. This requires them to maintain absolute independence and objectivity throughout the audit process. This independence is a critical aspect of gaining stakeholders' trust in the accuracy and reliability of the audited financial statements.


internal and external

The objectives and stakeholders served are another critical aspect that sets internal and external audits apart.

Internal Audit: The primary objective of an internal audit is to assess and improve the effectiveness of the organization's internal controls, risk management processes, and governance. Internal auditors aim to add value to the organization by providing independent and objective insights into its operations. They help management identify areas of improvement, ensure compliance with policies and procedures, and mitigate potential risks. The stakeholders served by internal audits include the company's management, board of directors, and other internal stakeholders. Internal auditors act as trusted advisors to the organization, assisting in enhancing operational efficiency and overall performance.

External Audit: The main objective of an external audit is to provide an independent and expert opinion on the fairness and accuracy of the company's finances and financial statements. External auditors conduct their assessments in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards (GAAS) or International Standards on Auditing (ISA). Their work is driven by the need to give assurance to external stakeholders, such as shareholders, investors, lenders, and regulators, about the reliability of the financial information presented in the company's financial statements. By issuing an audit opinion, external auditors provide confidence to these stakeholders that the financial statements present a true and fair view of the company's financial position and performance.

Frequency and Timing of Audits

The frequency and timing of audits also differ significantly between internal audits vs. external audits.

  • Internal Audit: Internal audits are an ongoing and continuous process. Internal audit department and auditors conduct their reviews and assessments throughout the year, based on a risk-based audit plan developed in collaboration with management. The audit plan considers various factors, such as the organization's size, complexity, industry, and risk profile. Internal auditors may perform routine audits of specific departments, processes, or functions, or they may conduct special audits in response to emerging risks or management requests. The dynamic nature of internal audits allows for real-time monitoring of internal controls and risk management practices, providing timely insights and recommendations for improvement.
  • External Audit: External audits, on the other hand, are typically conducted annually or as required by regulatory or statutory requirements. The timing of an external audit is usually tied to the end of the fiscal year when the company prepares its financial statements. The external auditor reviews the financial statements, accounting records, and supporting documentation to determine their opinion on their accuracy and compliance with relevant accounting standards. As the external audit is an independent assessment performed after the financial period has concluded, it provides an evaluation of the financial performance and position for that specific period.

Scope of Work and Access to Information

Internal Audit: Internal auditors work to gain a bird's-eye view of the organization. They have a broader scope of work and are generally involved in evaluating a wide range of activities within the organization. They assess the effectiveness and efficiency of internal controls, risk management practices, and operational processes. Internal auditors may conduct reviews of financial controls, IT systems, compliance procedures, and operational workflows. Their access to information is comprehensive and extends to all departments and functions within the organization, including the management system. Access compliance audits ensure they have an in-depth understanding of the organization's operations and identify areas for improvement.

External Audit: In contrast, the scope of work for an external audit is narrower and primarily focuses on the examination of the financial statements and related financial records. External auditors are primarily concerned with verifying the accuracy and fairness of the financial information presented in the financial statements. They do not delve into operational aspects or assess the organization's internal controls to the same extent as internal audits. External auditors' access to information is limited to the relevant financial information, records, and supporting documentation necessary to express an opinion on the financial statements. They rely on the organization's management to provide them with accurate and complete financial information.

Regulatory Requirements and Standards

Internal Audit: An internal audit is an integral part of the organization and operates under management's guidance. While there are no specific external laws and regulations governing the conduct of internal audits, it's guided by the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing (Standards) issued by The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA). These standards provide a framework for conducting internal audits and focus on principles such as objectivity, independence, and proficiency.

External Audit: External Audit, on the other hand, is subject to various regulatory requirements and standards. In the United States, an external audit is governed by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) for audits of public companies. The PCAOB sets rigorous standards and rules that external auditors must follow when conducting audits of publicly traded companies. For private companies, the audit standards are set by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), specifically the Statements on Auditing Standards (SAS).

Internal Audit vs. External Audit: Which One Do You Need?

Internal Audit vs. External Audit: Which One Do You Need?

Internal Audit Summary:

  • Serves the organization internally, providing independent and objective evaluations.
  • Assesses internal controls, risk management, and compliance with company policies and procedures.
  • Reports to management and the board of directors.
  • Helps improve internal processes and identifies areas for operational enhancement.
  • Enhances efficiency, effectiveness, and governance within the organization.

External Audit Summary:

  • Serves external stakeholders, such as investors, lenders, and regulators.
  • Focuses on verifying the accuracy and reliability of financial statements and disclosures.
  • Performed by independent, certified public accountants (CPAs) or audit firms.
  • Provides an opinion on whether the financial statements are fairly presented and comply with accounting standards.
  • Helps build trust and confidence in the organization's financial reporting among external stakeholders.

Which One Do You Need?

  • If you want an internal assessment of your organization's controls, risk management, and operational processes, an internal audit is appropriate.
  • If you need independent verification of your financial statements for external stakeholders, an external audit is necessary.
  • Many organizations benefit from internal and external audits to ensure comprehensive and well-rounded assurance and improvement processes.

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