How to Get Your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)

A commercial driver’s license (CDL) is required for those who wish to drive a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) in the United States. CDL applicants are typically subjected to a higher standard because CMV driving is more demanding in terms of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities compared to standard vehicle driving.

There are 3 different types of CDL: Class A, Class B, and Class C. To get started with the process, you must first obtain an updated copy of your state’s CDL manual. While most steps are universal, some steps are unique to the state. You must then choose the type of CMV and the kind of driving that you’re applying for.

Required Documents and Forms

Once you fill out your Commercial Driver’s License application form, you will need to provide documents that will prove your identity, your residency, and your social security number. While acceptable documents vary per state, the most widely accepted ones are:

  • Proof of identity: U.S. birth certificate, certified true copy of birth certificate, permanent resident card, temporary resident ID card, valid U.S. passport, valid military ID, USCIS American Indian card, or certificate of citizenship or naturalization
  • Proof of residency: Bills or documents that reflect your current address (required proof varies per state)
  • Proof of social security number: Social security card, Medicare ID card, or valid ID card from the U.S. Armed Forces (active, reserve, retired, or dependent)

Aside from having to provide proof of your identity, age, residency, and social security number, you also need to get a medical clearance to acquire your CDL. All applicants must provide an up-to-date Medical Examiner’s Certificate (MEC), or Form MCSA-5876, in order to drive. Those who wish to drive interstate are also required to disclose their medical history by filling out the Medical Examination Report (MER), or Form MCSA-5875. Once qualified, your MEC form will be stored on file for the next 3 years.

Step-by-Step Guide to Getting a CDL: Requirements and Tests

  1. Minimum age requirement: Be at least 18 years old to drive intrastate, and be at least 21 years old to drive interstate
  2. Submit completed CDL application form plus the required documents (proof of identity, residency, and social security number) and pay required fees
  3. Submit MEC (Form MCSA-5876) and MER (Form MCSA-5875)
  4. Pass the vision test
  5. Pass the knowledge exam
  6. Obtain Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) upon passing the tests
    Note: Your 10-year driving record in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) will be thoroughly checked in order to grant eligibility for a CLP. Gaining this permit will allow you to practice your driving on public roads with an experienced CDL holder supervising you.
  7. Wait at least 14 days before taking your CDL road skills exam
    Note: You can hold a CLP for 180 days at the most. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is currently working on extending its validity for up to 365 days.
  8. Pass the pre-trip inspection
  9. Pass the driving and road skills exam (using your own vehicle)
  10. Obtain your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) upon passing and pay the necessary fees

Important consideration: If you plan to drive interstate, you must seek a medical examiner from the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners for your MER (For MCSA-5875). Your employer must pay for your forms if they are requiring it for your job. Some states also require you to take state-approved certification or specialized training classes before allowing you to take the skills test. Your state DMV will advise you if you need to take such classes.

Getting a Class A License

A Class A license is required for driving vehicles (or a combination thereof) with a total weight that exceeds 26,000 pounds, and the vehicle in tow exceeds 10,000 pounds. This typically includes CMVs that have trailers with at least two axles.

Of the 3 license types, CMVs under the Class A license is generally the heaviest ones. Depending on the vehicle that you plan to drive, you may have to take additional endorsement exams. Examples include the double-triple endorsement exam (makes you qualified to drive with double or triple trailers), the combinations endorsement exam, or the air brakes endorsement exam (if your CMV has air brakes).

Getting a Class B License

A Class B license is required if you plan to drive a single vehicle that exceeds 26,000 pounds, and the GVWR of the vehicle in tow is below 10,000 pounds. Since much of the weight is carried by the main CMV, a double-triple endorsement or a combination endorsement is generally not required. However, you will need to get endorsements for a CMV with air brakes or for a tank vehicle.

Getting a Class C License

A Class C license is required for CMVs that are used for carrying at least 16 passengers or transporting hazardous materials. You will need to apply for a passenger transport endorsement for common passenger CMVs, while a school bus driver endorsement is specifically required for school buses. Safety and security checks may also be needed.

For transporting hazardous wastes and materials, you need to get the Hazmat endorsement plus additional background checks. In summary, you just need to pass all the tests and apply for the necessary endorsements depending on your CMV to get your Class A, B, or C license.

Can I Get a CDL without Attending Truck School?

Yes, you can get your CDL without any formal training from a truck driving school. You just need to practice with someone who has a CDL. Additionally, the CDL holder doesn’t necessarily have to be employed at a truck school. The caveat, however, is that some companies require new drivers to have completed a minimum of 160 hours of qualified instruction due to policy and insurance reasons.

Trucking can bring great opportunities and amazing benefits to anyone who is ready to make the most out of this job. However, the lifestyle is definitely not a good fit for everyone. Make sure that this is something that you can fully get into before you take up the challenge.