A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is a requirement for a wide variety of driving jobs, in industries ranging from shipping and freight to bus tours and equipment hauling. These kinds of jobs are in high demand, with an estimated 90,000 truck driver job vacancies annually alone, to say nothing of other driving and transport jobs.
Truck driving jobs are high-paying and in demand, with opportunities from coast to coast.
While the specific requirements vary from state to state, here are some of the jobs that typically require a commercial driver’s license:
- Truck driver
- Highway maintenance technician
- Heavy equipment operator
- Bus driver
- Delivery driver
- Shuttle driver
There are also many jobs that are required by their states to have a CDL.
- In New Jersey, drivers must have a CDL if they are driving a hired vehicle transporting 8-15 passengers, including vans and limousines
- In California, everyone who has a primary form of employment involving driving is required to have a CDL, regardless of vehicle type or cargo.
If you are interested in any career as a professional driver, it’s smart to look up whether a CDL is required in your state.
If you are interested in all the different job opportunities that become available once you have a
Firstly, do you meet the federal requirements?
While every state has slightly different requirements and a slightly different process, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has requirements for a CDL that apply nation-wide.
The FMCSA requires that:
- All commercial drivers of vehicles in interstate commerce with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of more than 10,000 pounds are obligated to acquire and maintain a lawful Medical Examiner’s Certificate, even if the vehicle doesn’t require a CDL.
Medically disqualifying conditions include:
- Hearing loss
- Vision loss
- Insulin Use
- Sustained ventricular tachycardia
- Meniere’s disease
- Kidney disease
- Sleep apnea
- Drivers who can show that their medical conditions pose no threat to road safety can seek exemptions for their medical conditions
- All CDL holders must declare to their state licensing agency that they only operate (or expect to operate) commercially in 1 of 4 possible categories:
- Interstate non-excepted: You are an Interstate non-excepted driver and must meet the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) medical card requirements.
- Interstate excepted: You are an Interstate excepted driver and do not have to meet the Federal DOT medical card requirements.
- Intrastate non-excepted: You are an Intrastate non-excepted driver and are required to meet the medical requirements for your State.
- Intrastate excepted: You are an Intrastate excepted driver and do not have to meet the medical requirements for your State.
- CDL holders, who are found driving in a category other than one to which they self-certified, are subject to revocation or suspension of their commercial driving privileges.
- CDL holders must provide their state licensing agency with a copy of their Medical Examiner’s Certificate.
- CDL drivers, who do ensure that their ME Certificate with their State is up to date, will have their commercial driving privileges demoted, and will not be entitled to drive a commercial motor vehicle that requires a CDL.
- CDL drivers must not have prior disqualifying criminal offenses. Disqualifying offenses include:
- Driving while under the influence of alcohol
- Driving under the influence of a Schedule 1 controlled substance
- Transportation, possession, or unlawful use of a Schedule 1 controlled substance
- Refusal to undergo alcohol or drug testing as prescribed by the state
- Leaving the scene of an accident while driving a commercial motor vehicle
- A felony involving the use of a commercial motor vehicle
- CDL drivers must be 21 years of age in order to drive across state lines or to operate a vehicle containing hazardous materials
That’s a long list, but the core of it is simple: be over 21, be basically healthy, and have a good driving and criminal record.
If you meet these requirements, it’s time to think about what kind of CDL is best for you.
Different classes of Commercial Driver’s Licenses
Again, while each state has slightly different rules, generally speaking, you are required to have a CDL in order to drive a vehicle with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more or to drive a vehicle transporting more than 15 passengers.
CDLs come in different classes, which have slightly different permissions.
The Class C CDL permits you to drive:
- A vehicle with a GVWR of 26,000 pounds or less
- A vehicle that transports hazardous material (with the proper endorsement)
- A vehicle that transports 15 or more passengers (with a total occupancy of 16 or more including the driver)
Examples of Class C driving might include:
- an airport shuttle or passenger van
- a small truck carrying hazardous materials (with the proper endorsement)
- a truck towing a trailer with a combined weight of
lessthan 26,000 pounds
The Class B CDL permits you to drive:
- A vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more
- A towed vehicle with a weight of 10,000 pounds or less
- Any vehicles allowed in a Class C license, with the proper endorsements
Examples of Class B driving might include:
- A large truck
- A passenger bus, including:
- City bus
- Tour bus
- School bus
- A box truck
- A dump truck
- Trucks with small trailers
The Class A CDL permits you to drive:
- A vehicle with a weight of 26,001 pounds or more
- A towed vehicle with a weight of 10,000 pounds or more
- Any vehicles allowed in Class B or C licenses, with the proper endorsements
Examples of Class A driving might include:
- Tractor trailers
- Truck and trailer combinations, including
- Double trailers
- Triple trailers
- Tanker vehicles
- Livestock carriers
As you can see, the Class A CDL is the most powerful and versatile, allowing you to drive almost anything, with the right endorsements (more information on endorsements is coming up below).
Generally speaking, it’s smartest and most efficient to get a Class A CDL even if you don’t think you will need it. If a new opportunity arises, you want to be able to take advantage of it right away, without going back to the DMV for more testing. There isn’t much to be gained by starting with a lower class of license.
Endorsements prove that you have specialized knowledge in a relevant area, and are therefore qualified to drive special commercial vehicles, or under special circumstances. Without the right endorsement, you are not allowed to operate the applicable vehicle. As you’ve probably guessed by now, there are CDL endorsements at the state and federal level. Here are the federal endorsements, that apply nation-wide:
- T: Double or triple trailers (requires passing a written test)
- P: Passenger vehicles (requires passing a written and driving test)
- N: Tank vehicles (requires passing a written test)
- H: Hazardous materials (requires passing a written test and a TSA background check)
- X: Combination of tank vehicle and hazardous materials (requires passing a written test and a TSA background check)
- S: School bus (requires passing the P endorsement, then a written test, driving test, background check, and review of the sex offender registry)
Depending on what kind of driving you want to do, it’s good to identify your desired endorsements ahead of time. That way you can be more efficient when pursuing your CDL, and try to take multiple written tests, for example, at the same time.
In many ways, the process of getting a CDL with your local DMV is much like the process of getting a normal driver’s license. You pass a written test to get a learning permit, then pass a practical test to get your license. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Here’s more explanation for your next steps:
Look up your state’s CDL regulations
The next step is to go to your local DMV and pass a written test to get a CDL driving permit. But your state may have specific requirements not listed above, so you should study that now. Get a copy of your state’s CDL driver’s manual and review it carefully. These are usually available online.
Remember that when you go to your DMV to get your permit, you will have to present a number of documents and pay some fees, so look up what they want you to bring, and start gathering your paperwork in preparation.
Get a DOT medical examination
Most states will require that you present your Medical Examiner’s Certificate when you apply for your CDL permit, so you should get that now. The examination must be done by a licensed examiner listed on the FMCSA National Registry, so you can look up a doctor on www.fmcsa.dot.gov. The certificate will be good for 24 months.
Get your CDL permit
Many DMVs require you to make an appointment before going in for your permit. Like a regular driving permit, a CDL permit allows you to practice your driving skills after passing a written exam. The written exam varies from state to state, but usually includes familiarity with general knowledge of the rules of the road and truck operation, air brakes, and combination vehicles.
Again, it’s helpful to refer to your state-specific CDL manual to know what will be covered in the test. Frequently there are practice tests available at your DMV website also, so you can better prepare ahead of time.
You will also need to present your existing driver’s license, DOT medical form, a copy of your driving record, and any other documents your DMV requires.
You will also be required to pay some fees, which vary widely from state to state.
Add your CDL endorsements
If any of your desired endorsements require a written test, make sure your DMV knows about it when you make your permit test appointment. Some states allow you to take the written endorsement tests when you take your written CDL permit test, allowing you to save time at the DMV. Some states require you to first get your CDL permit and then add endorsements later.
Some endorsements may also require you to pass a TSA background check. Every state does these very differently. In some states, you have to begin by filling out forms at the DMV and then following up with the TSA. In some states, you have to begin with the TSA and take the completed report to the DMV. If your desired endorsement requires a background check, you will need to check your state’s regulations and recommendations to find out how to proceed. Expect this process to take a long time and probably cost additional fees.
If you fail the written test
Don’t panic. Many people have text anxiety and fail their first attempt at the written test. You may have to wait a few days before trying again, but most states give you three or more opportunities to take the test. If you failed the first time, consider it a good learning experience, and try again.
Once you have your permit, practice!
The point of having the permit is to allow you to gain practical experience on the road. There is no better way to learn truck driving than to invest lots of time in it, so take advantage of your permit and drive as often as you can. Remember that your permit requires you to:
- Always travel with a licensed CDL holder with the endorsements to operate that vehicle
- The CDL passenger must always be in the front seat, or, in the case of a passenger vehicle, immediately behind the driver, under their direct supervision at all times
- A permit holder with a passenger endorsement is prohibited from transporting any passengers
- A permit holder with a school bus permit is likewise prohibited from transporting any passengers
- A permit holder with a tank endorsement may only operate empty tank vehicles that did not previously contain hazardous materials
Generally speaking, you must drive with your permit for a minimum of 14 days before applying for your full CDL, but can only drive with the permit for 180 days. Again, check your state’s regulations regarding time frames.
Take your CDL driving test
Like a regular driver’s license, you will have to pass a practical exam before getting your CDL license. It usually includes a pre-trip inspection, a basic control skills test, and a driving test at an approved facility. As above, if you want particular endorsements, you may be able to test for them at the same time, but you will need to check with your DMV.
Note that it is best for you to take and pass your CDL test in a vehicle with an air brake system, to avoid having the air brake restriction on your license. Even if you don’t plan on regularly using air brakes, having the option increases your skills and flexibility. See more information on restrictions below.
As with regular driver’s licenses, a CDL can have restrictions on it, prohibiting the driver from operating certain commercial vehicles, even with a CDL license. As with everything else, states may have more restrictions than the federal ones.
Common federal CDL restriction codes include:
- E Restriction: Forbids drivers from operating commercial vehicles which have a manual transmission.
- You get this restriction when you take your skills test in a vehicle with an automatic transmission.
- L Restriction: Prohibits drivers from operating commercial vehicles with a full air brake system.
- You get this restriction when you take your skills test in a vehicle without an air brake system, fail the basic air brakes knowledge test, incorrectly identify the components of an air brake system, or do not properly conduct the air brakes system check.
- Z Restriction: Prohibits drivers from operating commercial vehicles with a full air brake system.
- You get this restriction when you take your skills test in a vehicle with an air over hydraulic brake system.
- M Restriction: Allows the driver to drive Class B or C passenger vehicle or school bus ONLY.
- You get this restriction if you already have a Class A CDL, but added a passenger or school bus endorsement using a Class B vehicle.
- N Restriction: Allows the driver to drive Class C passenger vehicle or school bus ONLY.
- You get this restriction if you already have a Class B CDL, but added a passenger or school bus endorsement using a Class C vehicle.
- Restriction: Prohibits drivers from operating commercial vehicles with a fifth wheel connection.
- You get this restriction when you take your skills test in a vehicle without a fifth wheel connection.
- V Restriction: The V restriction applies to all commercial drivers with a medical variance issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
- You get this restriction if you have a medical waiver from the FMCSA.
As you can see, simply passing the test doesn’t allow you to drive any commercial vehicle you like. Your license may have restrictions based on the vehicle you drove during the test, so it’s best to choose your vehicle carefully so that you have the greatest number of options and opportunities later as a commercial driver.
If you fail the driving test
Don’t panic! In fact, among conventional drivers, as many as 80% of people fail their first driving test. If you have anxiety, here are some tips to help you get through it:
- Prepare in the weeks leading up to the test. Practice as much as you can, and study your manual. Don’t get overconfident and not prepare, or leave all your preparation until the last minute. Carve out time every day or every other day to prepare, so that your body has time to establish some muscle memory and your brain has lots of practice with
- Schedule your test for early in the day. That way your anxiety can’t build up all day long.
- Rest and sleep the night before. This may go without saying, but don’t stay up late or go to a party the night before. Stay calm and get a good night’s sleep.
- Don’t study immediately before the test. If you’ve studied in the weeks before, you won’t get any benefit from last-minute cramming, and if you are anxious it’s likely to just confuse you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The person administering the test is a stranger, but they know you are nervous. If you don’t understand a direction, ask for clarification.
- Don’t give up until it’s over. If you make a mistake or even a bunch of mistakes, don’t assume that you have failed and blow off the rest of the test. Take a deep breath and focus on the task ahead of you right now.
Once you pass the driving test, you can get your CDL. Congratulations!
Removing a CDL restriction or adding an endorsement
If you have a restriction on your CDL and you want to remove it, or if you have a CDL and want to add an endorsement, you can always go back to your DMV and re-take the driving test with the appropriate vehicle. It is possible that your DMV will ask you to take additional written tests as well, and of course, you should expect to pay additional fees.
On the one hand, getting a CDL seems complicated due to the sheer number of state and federal rules, classifications, regulations, and requirements. On the other hand, if you already have a conventional driver’s license, the process isn’t that much more difficult or complicated.
If you have a passion for trucks and love to drive, getting a Commercial Driver’s License opens up a whole new world of employment opportunities, with applications in hundreds of different jobs and industries. Driving a large vehicle is a big responsibility, but it’s also a great job.