CDL Classifications: A, B, and C Licenses Explained
So, you’ve decided you’re destined for a life on the road. No to a stuffy office or boring job! You love driving and fancy making a living doing it. What’s next? You’ll have to go through the process of getting a CDL. CDL stands for commercial driver’s license. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye at first glance.
That’s because different CDLs are available, namely CDL class A, B, and C. If you’re already getting a headache trying to figure out what CDLs are all about, don’t worry. We’ve got it covered here in this article.
Here, you’ll learn all there is to know about CDL classifications and more. In addition, we’ll bring you through the application, training, and testing process, while also outlining what special endorsements you may require. Finally, we’ll look at existing restrictions, so you’re absolutely clear on the entire process and the requirements you need to meet.
You need a commercial driver’s license to drive any commercial motor vehicle (CMV). That includes trucks, tractor trailers, dump trucks, semi-trucks, as well as passenger buses. Depending on your vehicle, you will need a specific CDL, namely one or more of A, B, or C CDLs. In addition, you’ll also require special endorsements to cater to the load, you’re driving. But more about endorsements later.
CDL classifications determine the size and weight of the vehicle you’ll be allowed to drive. However, no matter what commercial vehicle you plan on driving, you need to get one type of CDL. Before 1986, anyone with a driver’s license could drive a commercial vehicle in many states, but since then, legislation has made it mandatory for drivers to have a CDL. Legislators introduced CDLs to ensure that drivers receive proper driving training and to prevent unskilled drivers from causing accidents. Driving a commercial vehicle requires a high level of skills, so the process of getting a CDL is suitably thorough.
Before you go ahead and apply, you need to find out what kind of vehicle you’ll be driving. Then, you need to select the right CDL classification. So, let’s look at what the CDL classifications mean.
What Do the Classifications Mean?
Classes A, B, and C correspond to different vehicle weights and sizes. In fact, they fall into gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) groups.
Let’s look at them, one by one.
You need to get a Class A CDL if you want to drive one of the following vehicles:
- Tractor trailers
- Trucks with trailers
- Livestock trucks
- Tank vehicles
The relevant vehicle weight is as follows: GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, with the towed vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds.
This doesn’t mean you can drive all vehicles within this class. Depending on your load, you will also require specific endorsements.
If you want to drive one of the following, you will need a B Classification:
- Dump truck with a small trailer
- Segmented buses
- Large passenger buses
- Box trucks
- Straight trucks
Here, the GVWR specification is as follows: GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, with the towed vehicle weighing a maximum of 10,000 pounds
As you can see, the only difference between A and B are the load as well as the weight of the towed vehicle. With an A CDL, you can tow a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds, whereas with a B CDL you can only tow a vehicle weighing a maximum of 10,000 pounds
You’ll need a Class C commercial driver’s license if you intend to carry hazardous materials or small passenger groups of no more than 16 people, including the driver. Federal law stipulates what kind of hazardous materials you are permitted to carry.
Here are the vehicles that fall into this classification group:
- Small passenger vans
- Small vans transporting specified hazardous materials
- Vehicles not falling into classes A and B.
Intrastate vs Interstate CDL
Besides choosing which classification to apply for, you also need to decide whether you’ll need an intrastate or interstate CDL. But what’s the difference between an intrastate and an interstate CDL?
An intrastate CDL will suffice if you exclusively drive within your state, and your cargo never crosses into other states. The latter part is an important consideration because, with an intrastate CDL, you won’t be permitted to drive cargo that has originated or will end up in a different state.
You can drive from one state to another, or even to a foreign country. In addition, you can drive within your state but cross into a different state along the way if necessary. The origin or destination of the cargo can lie outside your state lines.
Can Anyone Apply for a CDL? CDL Requirements
Now, you have a good overview of why you require a CDL and what vehicles classifications A, B, and C cover. So, are there any restrictions? Can anyone apply?
Here are the basic CDL requirements as stipulated by the US federal government. While the federal government outlines the requirements for all states, each state has its own set of requirements you need to meet, so you’ll have to contact the driving authority in your state and find out about state-specific CDL requirements.
Nonetheless, let’s look at the federal requirements as outlined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA):
- You first need to get a commercial learner’s permit (CPL)
- You have a valid driver’s license and be at least 18 years old (in certain states)
- You need to be at least 21 to get an interstate (driving across different states) CDL or to carry hazardous materials
- Depending on your state, you need 2 or more years of driving experience
- You must provide proof of your social security number
- The authorities will carry out a background screening which you need to pass
- You must provide proof a citizenship or a lawful residency permit
- If you have license revocations or suspensions in any state, you cannot apply
- You must hand over your standard license on receipt of your CDL
- You must be able to speak and read English as all the written examinations are available in the English language only
- You must certify that you’re not subject to any disqualifications
- You must show that you don’t have a license from more than one state or jurisdiction
- You must name all the states you’ve been licensed to drive in within the last 10 years
In recent years, the FMCSA has introduced several new requirements, including that you’re not permitted to hold a CDL in more than one state. This is to prevent drivers from getting multiple licenses in different states, which is something some drivers practiced to hide bad driving records
The FMCSA has introduced new regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials. Special endorsements are needed, and you’ll have to meet a separate set of requirements.
- Since 2013, texting is prohibited
- From 2014 onwards, applicants are only allowed to produce medical examination reports from authorized medical practitioners
These are the basic requirements as set out by the federal government. Meanwhile, you will also need to check with the driving authority in your state and meet specific requirements there.
So, what else do you need to know? For certain types of cargo, you will need to obtain special endorsements. Let’s look at them next.
Even if you think you’ll only be driving CMVs with standard, dry cargo, it may still be worthwhile getting special endorsements on your A, B, or C CDL. Whichever endorsement you opt for will open up a new set of job opportunities for you.
So, what type of endorsements are available? Each endorsement type has a letter assigned to it to indicate the area of specialty.
- T stands for double and triples: You’ll need a T endorsement, if you have an A CDL but want to tow more than one trailer
- P stands for passenger transportation: If you want to carry passengers with an A, B, or C CDL, you need to get a P endorsement
- N stands for liquid bulk or tank cargo: If you drive a vehicle that falls into classes A or B and want to transport liquid or gas in a permanently mounted cargo tank with a capacity of 119 gallons or more or, in a portable tank with a capacity of more than 1,000 gallons, you’ll need an N endorsement. You’ll also need a N endorsement if you’re driving a C CDL vehicle hauling hazardous materials in gas or liquid form using portable or permanent tanks
- H stands for hazardous materials: To get a H endorsement, you need to be a US citizen, hold a permanent residency permit, or have a valid employment authorization document. With a H endorsement, you’ll be permitted to transport hazardous materials that require identification with a placard. The FMCSA stipulates what hazardous materials require placarding
- X stands for hazardous material plus tank: If you want to carry hazardous materials in a tank, you’ll require an X endorsement. For an X endorsement, you’ll also need to be a US citizen, hold a permanent residency permit, or have a valid employment authorization document.
- S stands for school bus: School bus drivers need both a P and S endorsement
- V stands for student transportation vehicle: If you want to drive students and special education students to and from school or college, you’ll need a V endorsement. Additionally, if you’re driving a vehicle requiring an A, B, or C CDL, you’ll also need a P endorsement
- A stands for activity vehicle: Drivers bringing students to and from school events or activities, but not to and from school, need an A endorsement if driving a vehicle requiring an F endorsement. If you’re driving an A, B or C CDL vehicle, you’ll also need a P endorsement when carrying passengers
- F stands for livery vehicle, motor coach or bus, and taxi: If you’re driving one of these vehicles, you’ll need an F endorsement. Furthermore, you’ll require an P endorsement to drive a Class A, B, or C CDL vehicle carrying passengers
So, these are the endorsements you can apply for, with each requiring you to meet specific criteria and partake in relevant training and testing. Some of the endorsements will only require a knowledge test, while for others, you’ll need to undergo both a skills and knowledge test. For the H/X endorsements, you’ll also need to go through a Transport Security Administration (TSA) threat assessment.
On your CDL, you may also have restrictions, placed because of medical aspects, because you failed in one or more part(s) of your CDL test, or because of the specifics of the vehicle you used during testing.
Let’s look at what type of restrictions may apply:
- B – You need to wear corrective lenses
- C – A mechanical aid is required
- E – You’re only permitted to drive automatic transmission vehicles
- G – You’re only allowed to drive in daylight
- L – You’re not permitted to drive a vehicle with a full air brake system
- D – You need a prosthetic aid
- K – You can only get an intrastate CDL
- M – You’re only permitted to drive a Class B or C passenger vehicle
- N – You’re restricted to driving class C passenger vehicles
- – You’re not allowed to drive combination (fifth wheel) vehicles
- U – You must wear a hearing aid
- P – This indicates that you’re driving on a commercial learner permit, so you’re only allowed to carry the driving instructor, other trainees, and your test examiner
- W – You need a medical waiver
- X – This indicates that you’re driving on a commercial learner permit, so you’re not permitted to purge cargo in a tank vehicle
- Z – You’re not permitted to drive a vehicle with full air brakes
These are just some of the restriction you may get, depending on your personal circumstances. For a full list of restrictions, click here.
How to Get a CDL License – What You Need to Do to Apply
Applying for a CDL requires time and a little know-how. However, the FMCSA has made excellent resources available to guide you through. Here are the steps you’ll need to pass through:
Obtain a copy of the CDL manual in your state: Seeing as you’ll go through the application process in your state, you need to follow state-specific guidelines.
- Decide Your Vehicle Type: Now, it’s time to decide what kind of commercial vehicle you would like to drive
- Select Your Chosen CDL License Type: As you now know about CDL classifications A, B, and C, you’ll be able to select the right one for you. What’s more, you probably already know what endorsements you’ll opt for later
- Apply for a commercial learner’s permit: In your state, request the forms and fill them in. You’ll have to submit documentation including proof of identity, proof of residency, along with DOT medical card. To obtain a DOT medical card, you’ll need to undergo a physical examination by an authorized medical practitioner. Each state’s requirements vary, so you’ll have to obtain the information in your state and follow the guidelines. While processing your application, your local driving authority will check out your driving history over the last 10 years in all 50 states to ensure you’re eligible
Once you’ve obtained your CLP, it’s time to choose a training facility and prepare for the knowledge and skills tests.
You’re not obliged to take part in formal CDL training. In fact, you can take the skills test 14 days after obtaining your CLP in some states. Nonetheless, it’s highly advisable to partake in professionally run CDL training. For starters, you’ll increase your chances of passing the test with flying colors. What’s more, it will make you a better CMV driver in the long run.
So, what will you learn during CDL training? Obviously, each CDL driving school’s curriculum will differ a little. However, here are the main elements you can expect:
- Theory Instruction: In a classroom setting, you’ll learn about the rules of the road, driving procedures and requirements, federal and state requirements for CMV drivers, legislation tested in the CDL theory test. You’ll also learn about the CDL classifications
- Driving school: You’ll learn how to drive under the supervision of a qualified instructor
- Vehicle inspection and handling: You’ll also learn how to inspect a vehicle pre and post road trip, couple and decouple a trailer, read road maps, keep delivery books and trip logbooks
Driving schools are familiar with all the elements of the tests and work hard to prepare learners for all the different aspects.
To do so, they include all the test areas in their curriculum including:
- Regulations for commercial drivers
- Road sign identification
- Basic driving skills including turning, shifting, backing up, overtaking
- Managing bad driving/weather conditions
- Accident protocol
- Advanced driving skills, for instance, altering driving techniques to suit the cargo
- CMV driver paperwork, including logbook and delivery book keeping and map reading
- Vehicle inspections
- Trailer coupling and decoupling
By the end of your course, you will be best placed to pass the knowledge as well as the driving skills tests. Countless online resources are also available, including the CDL prep app.
In your CDL manual, you’ll find all the information required to prepare you for the test. Each state has its own CDL manual, so check it out. In addition, it may be wise to read the FMCSA CDL manual.
The tests consist of a knowledge as well as a skills tests, which, if you take a CDL course, you’ll be familiar with beforehand.
In the skills test, here’s what you can expect:
- Vehicle inspection test: Here you will need to show that you know how to inspect a vehicle before and after a trip
- Basic controls test: Backing, offsetting, parallel parking, etc.
- Road test: You will have to display good driving skills, avoid rolling back when setting off after a stop, avoid hitting curbs, plus avoid all other driver errors
Passing the skills test it doesn’t mean that you’ll also pass the theory test, as you will need to display a high degree of knowledge.
When it comes to the theory test, many online resources, even cheat sheets, are available, so preparation should be child’s play. Still, you’ll need to absorb and be able to produce a lot of information.
CDL Job Opportunities
Equipped with a CDL, you’re chances of getting a job are much-improved. According to the Department of Labor, job opportunities for truck and heavy vehicle drivers is set to rise by 6% between 2016 and 2026.
The same period will see a 5% job market growth for chauffeurs, ride-hailing drivers, and taxi drivers, whereas bus driver job opportunity growth is set at 6% for the same period.
CDL classifications A, B, and C group commercial vehicles for licensing and insurance purposes. If you’re considering a career on the open road, you first need to decide what kind of vehicle you would like to drive professionally.
In addition, you can choose whether to apply for an intrastate or interstate CDL, depending on how far afield you’d like to travel.
Endorsements allow you to carry specific cargo, including everything from heavy loads of hazardous materials right through to large passenger groups.
You will have to do a theory and skills test for all CDL classifications and may see some restrictions placed on your license. However, CDL holders have lots of job in a job market that looks set to grow.
In fact, the American Trucking Association has warned of a serious shortage of truck drivers. By 2026, they estimate a shortage of 175,000 truck drivers.
Though this is a major industry concern, it’s great news for anyone considering a career as a qualified commercial vehicle driver. Even though CDL training can cost several thousand dollars, looking at the job prospects, this certainly seems like a career path worth taking.