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A penetration tester, also known as an ethical hacker, is a security professional who can help organizations detect security weaknesses before they are exploited by malicious attackers.
Penetration testing certification prepares testers for real-world projects. To be certified, each candidate must complete relevant courses and take an exam. This exam tests the candidate’s knowledge in basic information security concepts and the latest penetration testing technique.
There are several recognized penetration testing certifications. Most certifications require some prior experience in systems administration and networking. The best penetration testing certifications focus on advanced techniques such as operating system vulnerabilities and client-side attacks.
In this article, you will learn:
For individuals already working as penetration testers or considering a career in the field, a penetration testing certification increases credibility and proves the skill level of a candidate.
Some service providers who claim to offer penetration testing are really providing only an automated vulnerability scan. Certification can help clients ensure that a penetration testing service provides a full manual investigation of the client’s systems by a certified individual.
While companies often hire penetration testers for limited projects, they can also develop an in-house penetration testing team. This has high initial costs, but offers significant long-term benefits. Having an internal penetration testing team allows more frequent testing, faster response times, and lower testing costs compared to external services. However, organizations must take into account that in-house penetration testers will have to carry out recertification, which can be time consuming and costly.
Another option is for companies to certify in-house employees in penetration testing techniques, even if they don’t plan to use them as full time penetration testers. Employees working in IT, security, development, or even executives like a chief information security office (CISO), can benefit from pentesting certification because they will get hands-on experience with important attack techniques.
Related content: Read our guide to pentesting tools (coming soon)
Many certifications are available to penetration testers. Some certifications, or units within a certification, focus on a specific niche within penetration testing, such as:
You can also categorize penetration testing certifications as entry-level, intermediate, and expert-level. Beginner and intermediate certifications are suitable for those new to penetration testing, while expert-level are for seasoned penetration testers who want to refresh or expand their skills.
Here are examples of certifications relevant for each level:
A certified ethical hacker (CEH) is a skilled individual who can look for security weaknesses and vulnerabilities in systems. The CEH employs the same tools and knowledge as a malicious hacker in an authorized and lawful manner. The goal is to assess the security posture of one or several systems.
The EC Council awards the CEH certification to individuals passing an exam that verifies their proficiency in specific vendor-neutral network security disciplines of Ethical Hacking. The exam includes 125 questions and takes approximately four hours. You can also take another six-hour practical test to show a real grasp of tactics. Passing requires knowledge of hacking and malware tactics.
The EC Council’s LPT is an advanced penetration tester certificate that demonstrates expertise across a broad range of testing scenarios and skills. The LPT does not use an exam to verify expertise. It is conducted entirely in a virtual environment with real code, where candidates can demonstrate experience through simulation scenarios based on real-life threats.
The LPT certification proves the candidate mastered the deployment of advanced testing skills, such as operating system vulnerability exploits, multi-level pivoting, SSH tunneling, host-based application exploits, parameter manipulation, and web application exploits like SQL injection.
The OSCP certification verifies that individuals have the skills required to secure a network properly. It was created for technology professionals such as pen testers, information security professionals, security professionals, and network administrators.
The OSCP certification includes an exam that simulates a live network on a private VPN, lasting up to 23 hours and 45 minutes. This exam typically requires preparation, such as a one-month or two-month lab.
The GPEN certification allows individuals to take a simple proctored exam with multiple-choice questions by the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC). It takes up to three hours, and the questions cover various topics, including technical questions related to penetration testing and ethical hacking, legal topics related to pentesting, and more.
The GXPN is an advanced certification that verifies an individual can perform sophisticated exploit research and penetration testing across a well-fortified and complex network. It is a proctored exam consisting of 60 questions.
Individuals must answer a minimum of 67% of the exam correctly in up to 3 hours using the CyberLive system. It provides a hands-on system that simulates real-world systems and applications, creating a laboratory environment with real code, virtual machines (VMs), and programs.
The CompTIA PenTest+ consists of 85 questions encompassing a diverse range of penetration testing knowledge. Individuals need to correctly define security vulnerabilities in traditional servers and desktops, as well as modern environments including clouds and mobiles.
This certification emphasizes practical skills, including analyzing Bash and Python code and exploiting vulnerabilities in Bluetooth connections and applications.
In this article, we discussed how penetration testing certifications can advance your career as an ethical hacker. We explained the range of certifications in the market, from beginner certifications intended for those with no prior experience to advanced certifications for seasoned IT and security professionals.
Finally, we covered 6 certification programs which are among the most popular and respected in the industry:
We hope this will be useful as you find the certification program most appropriate for your professional goals.