How to get a CDL License

Professional truck drivers traverse the highways and byways of the United States, passing gorgeous panoramas and cities transporting goods from coast to coast and locally. Professional truck drivers are a fundamental component of a stoked economy. Professional truckers tend to prefer working alone as their solo driving responsibilities often take days (or even weeks) to complete. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were nearly 2 million Heavy & Tractor-Trailer Truck Driving jobs and approximately 1.5 million Delivery Truck Drivers in the United States during the calendar year. 

Are you ready for a successful career as a professional truck driver and ready to join the 3.5+ million professional truckers transporting goods locally, or from coast to coast? 

If so, the first step is to understand CDL license requirements.

Step 1: Understand CDL License Requirements

To lawfully drive a commercial vehicle in the United States, an individual must earn (and maintain) a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in accordance with both the federal and state statutes.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) sets forth the following basic requirements for CDL applicants -

  • Be 21 years old, or older for interstate travel (18 years for intra-state drivers) 
  • Have no disqualifying criminal offenses of record
  • Have a Driver's license (non-commercial) that has never been denied or canceled 
  • Pass a General Knowledge written test, a skill's analysis, and an endorsement test
  • Proof of a social security number and a United States citizenship
  • Pass a vision test
  • Submit a completed Medical Examination Report Form (MCSA – 5875)/Certificate 
  • Pass a pre-trip inspection
  • Proof of legal residence in the state in which you are applying for a Commercial Driver’s License
  • Ample knowledge that demonstrates that you can read and speak the English Language
  • Be physically qualified to drive the commercial motor vehicle

Potential Disqualification Factors

Your application for a Commercial Driver’s License can be disqualified for the following reasons – 

  • If you possess a driver's license from a different state
  • If your Commercial Driver’s License is subject to any disqualification from any other state
  • If your current Driver’s License has been - 
    • Canceled
    • Denied
    • Revoked 
    • Suspended
  • If you have been convicted of driving a motor vehicle while impaired or intoxicated

The best place to start to better understand how to get a CDL is to review your state's CDL manual.

Step 2: Determine Which CDL License & Endorsements You Need

Types of Commercial Driver’s Licenses

Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs) are categorized within three general classes. Each Commercial Driver’s License classification is differentiated based on the vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), among an assortment of other factors. Some classes of Commercial Driver’s Licenses may require the applicant to obtain an additional endorsement.

CDL License Types

The Class A Commercial Driver’s License  

The Class A Commercial Driver’s License is required for professional truckers who operate a vehicle with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating that exceeds 26,000 lbs. – With a vehicle in tow weighing more than 10,000 lbs. The Class A Commercial Driver’s License is generally required for professional long-distance tractor-trailer drivers. Class A truckers generally obtain additional endorsements that allow them to carry specific payloads.

  • Double or Triple Tractor-Trailers (aka Big Rig or Semi)
  • Flatbeds
  • Tanker Trailers
  • Most Class B and Class C motor vehicles (endorsement may be necessary)
  • Livestock Carrier Vehicles, to name a few

To obtain a Class A Commercial Driver’s License, a driver-applicant must complete a minimum of 160 classroom hours, combined with wheel training hours.  It is noted that with the appropriate endorsements, a Class A license holder may be allowed to drive Class B & C vehicles. 

The Class B Commercial Driver’s License 

The Class B Commercial Driver’s License is required for those professional truck drivers who operate a commercial motor vehicle that has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) that exceeds 26,000 lbs. – With a vehicle in tow weighing less than 10,000 lbs. Class B Licensed truck drivers operate these types of motor vehicles -

  • A Garbage Truck
  • A Straight Truck
  • A Tow-truck
  • A Dump Truck with a small trailer
  • A Box Truck
  • A Large Passenger Bus, or a Segmented Bus
  • A Delivery Truck 

The Class C Commercial Driver’s License 

The Class C Commercial Driver’s License is required for those professional truck drivers who operate a passenger vehicle with 15 (or more) passengers, plus the driver, or for the transport of HAZMAT materials as defined by criteria set forth by the Federal Government.  Class C Licensed truck drivers operate these types of motor vehicles –

  • Passenger Vans
  • Smaller HazMat Motor Vehicles
  • Combo Motor Vehicles that do not meet the requirements for Class A or Class B licenses. 

Commercial Driver’s License Endorsements

A professional truck driver, through the obtainment of endorsements, has the opportunity to earn additional earnings at a higher salary scale.  CDL endorsements are required if a professional truck driver is interested in driving more specialized motor vehicles.  These endorsements are available for -  

The Endorsement Code  Endorsement Description 
 T  Double/Triple Trailers (Knowledge test only)
 P  Passenger (Knowledge & Skills Test)
 N  Tank (Knowledge test only)
 H  Hazardous Materials (Knowledge test only)
 X  Tank & Hazardous Materials (Knowledge test only)
 S  School Bus (Knowledge & Skills Test)

It is noted that those who hold a Commercial Learning Permit (CLP) are only allowed to have three endorsements, the P, S, and N endorsement.

Step 3: Obtain a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP)

Obtaining a Commercial Learner’s Permit is the first step towards obtaining your Commercial Driver's License.

A Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) is a certificate-like document that is provided by the state in which you live, that allows the CLP holder to practice driving a commercial motor vehicle. It is noted that there are federal regulations that apply to CDL license requirements in addition to the state regulations that may apply. Each state’s guidelines differ, so check your state to be sure.

The Commercial Learner’s Permit authorizes the permit holder to practice on public roads with a qualified CDL licensee sitting alongside them. Obtaining a Commercial Learner’s Permit involves -

  • Submitting all required documentation, which includes -
    • A current driver’s license
    • A ten-year driving record generated from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
  • Completing the Medical Exam Self Certification 
  • Successfully passing the Commercial Learner’s Permit’s road test and written knowledge exam
  • Paying the required application fees

Once you have earned your Commercial Learner’s Permit, it is essential to clock practice-driving time in preparation for Commercial Driver’s License road test requirements.  

Step 4: Get a CDL License

To obtain your Commercial Driver’s License, one must follow these guidelines –

  • Maintain your Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) for a minimum of two weeks
  • Schedule the road test portion of the Commercial Driver’s License requirements. Note – the vehicle you take the road test with must be the same type of motor vehicle that will be driven once you are licensed
  • Pass the Commercial Driver’s License Skill’s Exam(s). [Check out free online practice tests to use before sitting for the written CDL exam.] These Commercial Driver’s License tests include -
    • The Vehicle Inspection Test
    • The Basic Controls Test
    • The Road Test – waivers available to military veterans

Preparing for the CDL License Test

When preparing for the Commercial Driver's License test, it is crucial to allocate sufficient time to ensure you do your best when sitting for the Commercial Driver’s License written exams and road tests. Check out the many CDL practice tests, study guides and flashcards available to help you prepare for the Commercial Driver’s License written test regarding – 

  • General Knowledge
  • Double & Triple Tractor Trailers
  • Air Brake Operations
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Combination Vehicles
  • Tanker Trucks
  • Passenger Transport
  • School Buses

CDL Pay & Salary

If you have an interest in earning your Commercial Driver’s License and would also like to receive training pay, research some of the significant carrier companies that offer paid training programs. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Truck Driver’s Earnings Statistics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics separates truck driver labor and earnings statistics within two broad categories. They are -

The Tractor-Trailer or Heavy Truck Driver Category

According to the federal government’s BLS website, the earnings stats for Tractor-Trailer/Heavy Truck Drivers were as follows –

  • The Median Hourly Earnings - 2018 - $   21.00
  • The Median Yearly Earnings - 2018 - $ 43,680

The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates an additional 99,000+ professional Tractor-Trailer or Heavy Truck Drivers by the year 2028. This projected growth is considered average. 

The Delivery Truck Driver Category

According to the federal government’s BLS statistics, the earnings statistics for Delivery Truck Drivers were as follows –

  • The Median Hourly Earnings - 2018 - $   14.66
  • The Median Yearly Earnings - 2018 - $ 30,500

The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates an additional 30,000+ professional delivery truck drivers (in this category) by the year 2028.

For more information, see our guide on how much truck drivers make.

The Bottom-Line

The trucking industry’s economic indicators remain positive and generally in line with the average economic predictions for the overall economy. However, with the explosion of online shopping, the trucking industry’s prospects will likely continue to support healthy financial progress for the industry. 

If a truck driver’s lifestyle meets your career objectives, now is a great time to join the trucking industry as a professional driver.  

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