A Beginner's Guide to Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs)
- What is a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)?
- The Types of Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs)
- The 13 Steps to Getting Your Commercial Driver's License
- How Much Does a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) Cost?
- Driving Schools & Commercial Learner's Permits
- How Difficult Is It To Get a Commercial Driver's License?
- Where Can You Get a Commercial Driver's License?
- How quickly can you get a CDL?
Over 37.9 million trucks are registered and used for business purposes (excluding government and farm) in the United States. Those trucks shared $732.3 billion in gross freight revenues (primary shipments only) from trucking, representing 80.4% of the nation’s freight bill in 2020.
Becoming part of this $700+ billion industry ultimately requires a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). However, it’s slightly more complicated: what type of CDL you have determines what truck you can operate. Three classes determine the types of trucks you’re permitted to operate: Class A, Class B, & Class C. Each corresponds to a weight class known as Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR).
What is a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)?
CDLs are required for heavy, oversized vehicles that move bulk commodities and large equipment, as well as those that carry multiple passengers, such as school buses.
In addition to a CDL, drivers can add endorsements that allow them to transport hazardous materials such as chemicals, explosives, flammable liquids, and radioactive materials. Drivers with other endorsements can operate specialized equipment, such as double and triple combination tractor-trailers, and transport bulk liquids in tanker trailers.
Jump here to see the ultimate list of available jobs for truck drivers and the required endorsements.
The Types of Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs)
The most popular CDL is Class A. The Class A CDL allows truck drivers to operate every type of commercial vehicle, making it easier to find driving jobs and reducing trips back to truck driving schools or trucking companies for more training. Additionally, with the Class A CDL, you’re permitted to operate any vehicle covered under either a Class B or Class C and to drive a Class 8 truck.
U.S. Federal regulations require a CDL if you are operating a vehicle weighing 26,001 pounds or more, transporting 16 passengers or more, or transporting hazardous materials across state lines. Before running a commercial vehicle outside of your home state, you should visit your state’s .gov website, determine whether or not you qualify for any exemptions, and ensure that you are fully compliant.
Following are the three different classifications of CDLs:
Class A: This classification permits drivers to operate a motor vehicle with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more and towing equipment with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 pounds or more. This license class permits freight hauling using dry van, flatbed, and reefer trailers with more than one axle. With this truck driving license, you can cross state lines and operate along the interstate. This class is best for people looking for an over-the-road (OTR) career with high earning potential and job security.
Class B: This classification permits drivers to operate a single vehicle with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more and trucks with a detached towed cargo vehicle weighing less than 10,000 pounds. A Class B truck driver can only haul freight with a single axle trailer within state lines. This class is best for people looking for local trucking jobs within the service or utility industries.
Class C: This classification is required for drivers operating commercial vehicles weighing less than 26,001 pounds or a truck towing another vehicle that weighs fewer than 10,000 pounds. Additionally, if the operator has the correct endorsements, they can operate vehicles designed to transport at least 16 passengers (including the driver) or to carry hazardous material. This class suits those wanting to operate school buses, airport limousines, small hazmat vehicles, etc.
The 13 Steps to Getting Your Commercial Driver’s License
Please note that there may be nuances to the following steps depending on your state.
- Be at least 21 years of age (at least 18 years of age to drive intrastate).
- To obtain a Class A or Class B CDL, you must complete FMCSA-approved driver training.
- Submit your CDL Application and pay the appropriate fees.
- Verify your identity and Social Security number (be sure to check your state’s requirements).
- Provide proof of state and U.S. residency.
- Submit a completed Medical Examination Report Form and Medical Examiner’s Certificate Form.
- Pass all written tests (knowledge and endorsement).
- Note: To obtain a Class A or Class B CDL, you must take theory training from an approved theory training provider listed in the FMCSA Training Provider Registry (TPR). Your provider will send your training records to the TPR once you have successfully completed this training. With this training your state DMV will allow you to take the official written knowledge test for a CLP.
- Pass a vision test.
- Receive your Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP). Some states will provide you with your CDL the same day; others will send it via mail.
- Once your CLP is in hand, wait 14 days (minimum) before scheduling your CDL road skills test.
- Pass all three sections of the Skills Test: the Vehicle Inspection Test, the Basic Controls Test, and the Road Test.
Note: You must take behind-the-wheel (BTW) training from an approved BTW training provider listed on the TPR before your state DMV will allow you to take the official skills test for a CDL.
- When you have passed, pay the CDL fees (optionally, submit a 10-year record check if you have had a license in any other state or jurisdiction than the one where you are applying).
How Much Does a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Cost?
The cost of acquiring a CDL depends on your state or province of residence. To determine the exact cost of a CDL for your state, visit your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Revenue website. State variance aside, here is a breakdown of the average prices:
- Written tests can cost up to $25 each
- The skills testing, which includes a road test, a pre-trip inspection test, and a basic vehicle control test, can cost up to $250
- The CDL itself can cost up to $200
Fees & Endorsements
- Application fees can range from $0 – $43
- Endorsements cost between $5 to $10 (not including testing fees)
Permits, Training & Tuition
- Permits (i.e., Commercial Learner’s Permit [CLP]) can cost up to $50
- If you decide you’d like to take a private school course, tuition can range from $1,000 – $5,000 and may include additional costs for materials, drug screenings, permit tests, and a physical.
In summary, getting your Commercial Driver’s License can cost up to $575 USD from start to finish without private school tuition.
Driving Schools & Commercial Learner’s Permits
Not every state or province requires driving school training, but it is highly encouraged as it provides hands-on experience and allows you to network early in your career.
You can attend two types of truck driving schools: paid CDL training programs (often provided by larger fleets) or private training schools.
Paid CDL Training Schools benefit new drivers because there is almost zero cost upfront, and you will be able to start working as soon as you complete the program and have your CDL. Private schools often offer college credits or certificates upon completing their program.
If you’d prefer not to go the training route, you can fast-track to obtaining your Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP). A CLP allows new drivers to practice operating commercial vehicles with experienced instructors.
You must pass three tests covering general knowledge, combination vehicles, and air brakes to get your CLP.
Keep in mind that, in states or provinces that do not require formal training, you may be required to hold your Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) for longer. For those states requiring a CLP, you must possess the CLP for 14 days and complete the entry-level driver training to qualify for the CDL skills test.
How Difficult Is It To Get a Commercial Driver’s License?
Most truckers find the written exams easy to pass. Each state provides a Commercial Driver’s License training manual (as does the FMCSA), but plenty of free CDL practice tests are available online (example). Studying this manual will give you all the information you need to pass the written exams (including the complementary endorsement exams).
As with a standard driver’s license, the skills test can be challenging for some but not overly so. The key to successful skills testing is practice. If you practice ahead of time, you will be more comfortable on test day, resulting in a higher score.
Where Can You Get a Commercial Driver’s License?
- Private CDL schools. Independently owned and run private truck driving schools offer truck driving training. Most often, they will require students to pay tuition up-front, and all associated costs will be the student’s responsibility. Several scammers have been known to operate in this area of the industry, so it’s wise to investigate a private CDL school before submitting payment.
- Community colleges. Courses in CDL training are available at some community colleges and technical schools. If you choose to get your CDL through one of these programs, search for state grants, scholarships, and fleets that offer tuition reimbursement.
- Company-sponsored training. It is common for large carriers to provide apprenticeship programs for individuals. Typically, they’ll start a new training rotation every week, so meeting their basic qualifications and showing up on time for your training cycle is a simple matter. However, there’s a slight catch as they usually require you to sign a contract for one to two years with the company or pay back the cost of your training if you decide to move to another trucking company.
- Military Skills Test Waiver Program. The program allows drivers with two years’ experience safely operating heavy military vehicles to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) without taking the driving test (skills test). This program is available in every state. More than 40,000 service members and veterans have taken advantage of this waiver program.
How quickly can you get a CDL?
With training, it could take four to six weeks to get your Commercial Driver’s License. Without training, it could take as little as two-to-three weeks, including the 14-day wait period between receiving your CPL and taking your road skills test.
For new drivers committed to obtaining their CDL, the process is straightforward, can be completed in weeks, and is relatively inexpensive when compared to earning potential. Each type of CDL and endorsement requires that you pass a written test. Most new truckers find these tests are easy to pass. Some CDLs and endorsements also require a skills test. With lots of practice, these tests are also easy to manage. Additionally, some types of endorsements have further requirements.
The payback is enormous! This $700+ billion industry is currently short of drivers. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) reported a shortage of 80,000 drivers in 2021, and projects this number to grow throughout the remainder of the decade. Obtaining a CDL is your ticket to a job position in high demand and a career with unlimited potential.
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