How to Get a CDL (Commercial Drivers License)

Published 10/14/2022

While it may seem daunting, getting a CDL is a relatively straightforward process.

This guide starts with some basic terms and explains how CDLs work before providing a step-by-step list of how to get a CDL.

Next, we cover who can  get a CDL and what the different CDL classes, endorsements, and restrictions mean.

We then cover how CDL schools work, how to get free schooling, average CDL salaries, and more.

What is a CDL? 

A Commercial Driver’s License, also known as a CDL, is a special driver’s license that is required to drive large/heavy vehicles, transport large groups of passengers, or haul hazardous materials.

What is a CLP?

CLP stands for “commercial learner’s permit” and allows CLP holders to drive commercial vehicles for training purposes before they get their CDL as long as they are accompanied by a CDL holder.

CDL holders may also need to get a CLP when learning to drive vehicles that their current CDL does not cover, such as a hazmat truck.

CLPs are also occasionally referred to as a CDL permit.

How CDLs Work

CDLs are issued at the state level so the specifics may differ slightly from state to state. However, there are federal CDL requirements that each state must follow.

Before obtaining a CDL, individuals in all 50 states will need to first obtain a CLP, receive proper training, and then pass the appropriate tests.

Even though licensing is done at the state level, once an individual obtains their CDL, they are permitted to drive a commercial motor vehicle across state lines as long as they are 21 years of age or older.

Depending on the state, CDLs will expire after 5-8 years and will need to be renewed.

How much does it cost to get a CDL?

Depending on the state and CDL school, getting a CDL can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. 

The biggest expense for most individuals will be CDL school. However, many trucking companies offer free CDL schooling for individuals that agree to work for the company for a set period of time afterwards (usually a year). Keep reading to learn more about CDL school and paid programs.

Other expenses can include CDL application fees, testing fees, the actual license fee, and any additional endorsement fees.

About the author
Scott Elgin has been in the trucking business since 1982, acting as both a motor carrier and a freight agent at Elgin Trucking Co. During this time, he has overseen thousands of units servicing the entire continental United States.

Steps to Getting a CDL


1. Initial Research & Preparation

  1. Read through the Commercial Driver’s Licensing (CDL) Manual for the relevant state to research state-specific guidelines and requirements
  2. Select which class of CDL, any endorsements, and restrictions that will be relevant based on the vehicle and cargo to be driven
  3. Take a DOT physical and get a DOT medical card – this will usually be required to get a CLP

2. Get a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP)

Individuals are required to pass a knowledge test for the specific type of driving they will be doing once they have their CDL.

A commercial learner’s permit allows individuals to practice driving a commercial vehicle on public roads as long as they are accompanied by a qualified CDL holder.

3. Complete Entry-Level Driver Training (CDL School)

New CDL holders are required to complete entry-level driver training with a registered training provider before they take their CDL test.

Students can find a registered training provider on the FMCSA’s website and check their training certification information here.

4. Take the CDL Test

Once individuals have had their CLP for at least 14 days and completed their entry-level driver training, they are able to take the CDL skills test. 

There are three parts to the skills test:

  1. Pre-trip Vehicle Inspection – Candidates must be able to identify the features and equipment on the test vehicle that should be inspected before operating the vehicle. Here is an example of everything that is covered on the California CDL vehicle inspection checklist.
  2. Basic Vehicle Controls – Tests whether candidates can control the vehicle and judge its position relative to other objects. Testing can include backing up in a straight line, offset back to the left or right, parallel parking, and alley docking.
  3. On-road Test – Evaluates candidates on a test route with a variety of traffic situations. Driver performance during turns, lane changes, start/stops can all be evaluated while navigating intersections, highways, and urban areas.

Who can get a commercial driver’s license?

Most US citizens and permanent residents in good health with a clean driving record can get their CDL.

To be eligible for a CDL, an individual must meet the following minimum federal requirements:

  • Be 18 years of age or older (for out-of-state driving,  must be 21+)
  • Have at least 1 year of non-commercial driving experience
  • Have a clean driving record for the past two years, which includes no licensing issues, motor vehicle offenses, serious traffic violations, or at-fault accidents (drivers with less than two years of driving experience will need a good driving record for their entire history)
  • Be a citizenship or have lawful permanent residency in the US (in certain cases, individuals may also obtain a non-domiciled CLP/CDL)
  • Be a resident in the state of issuance
  • Be fluent in English  well enough to converse with the public, understand traffic signs/signals, and keep accurate records
  • Be physically fit to drive a commercial motor vehicle as defined here

Can I get a CDL if I have an SR-22?

An SR-22 by itself does not prohibit individuals from getting their CDL. An SR-22 can be required for a variety of reasons so CDL eligibility comes down to why an SR-22 is required.

For example, a failure to carry insurance will not prevent an individual from getting their CDL in most cases but a recent DUI usually will. These regulations are set at the state level though so potential CDL candidates will need to check with their state’s DMV website.

However, not all trucking companies will hire a driver with an SR-22 even if they have their CDL. So while drivers with an SR-22 may still be eligible for a CDL, their job prospects will likely still be limited compared to a CDL holder with a clean driving record.

Can I get a CDL if I have a DUI?

While each state handles DUI convictions differently, many states allow individuals with a DUI record to still get their CDL as long as enough time has passed. They will also need to have an active driver’s license. However, these regulations vary from state to state so it’s important to check with the state DMV before enrolling in a CDL school.

It’s important to note that finding a CDL job with a DUI record can be extremely difficult.

Can I get a CDL if I use hearing aids or cochlear implants?

Yes, drivers with hearing aids that are able to hear a forced whisper in their better ear from 5 feet away meet the physical qualifications for getting a CDL.

Can a deaf person get a CDL?

Yes, deaf individuals can still get their CDLs but will need to apply for the FMCSA's exemption program. Individuals are approved on a case-by-case basis.

Commercial Driver License Classes

There are three classes of CDLs, each corresponding to a specific type of vehicle or cargo.

Class A

A Class A license allows holders to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more. Drivers can also tow any vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or more.

Semi-trucks, tankers, and tractor-trailer buses will all require a Class A CDL.

Individuals with a Class A license can also drive vehicles that fall under the Class B and Class C licenses, provided they have the appropriate endorsements.

Class B

A Class B license allows holders to drive any single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more. Drivers can also tow any vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 10,000 pounds.

Large box trucks, buses, and dump trucks with small trailers will all require a Class B CDL.

Individuals with a Class B license can also drive vehicles that fall under the Class C license, provided they have the appropriate endorsements.

Class C

A Class C license allows holders to drive vehicles that do not fall under the Class A or Class B licensing requirements but that are designed to transport 16+ passengers (including the driver) or are placarded for hazardous materials.


FMCSA Vehicle Groupings

FMCSA Vehicle Groups for Class A, Class B, and Class C CDLs
FMCSA Vehicle Groupings for Class A, Class B, and Class C commercial drivers licenses

CDL Special Endorsements

Depending on the cargo or passengers being transported, individuals may need to obtain specific endorsements on their CDL license.

The table below covers all CDL endorsements regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.


CDL Endorsements

Endorsement Code
Description
T
Double/Triple Trailers
(Knowledge Test Only)
P*
Passenger
(Knowledge and Skills Tests)
N
Tank Vehicle
(Knowledge Test Only)
H*
Hazardous Materials
(Knowledge Test Only)
X
Combination of Tank Vehicle & Hazardous Materials Endorsements
(Knowledge Test Only)
S*
School Bus
(Knowledge and Skills Tests)
*CDL or endorsement requires entry-lever driver training if the driver is seeking to obtain it for the first time. For more information, see the FMCSA Entry-Level Driver Training page.

Drivers wishing to add a Passenger, Hazmat, or School Bus endorsement to their CDL will also need to add the endorsements added to their Commercial Learner's Permit.


CLP Endorsements

Endorsement Code
CLP Restrictions
P
Passenger, A CLP holder with a "P" endorsement is prohibited from operating a CMV carrying passengers, other than Federal/state auditors and inspectors, test examiners, other trainees, and the CDL holder accompanying the CLP holder.
S
School Bus, A CLP holder with an "S" endorsement is prohibited from operating a school with passengers, other than Federal/state auditors and inspectors, test examiners, other trainees, and the CDL holder accompanying the CLP holder
N
Tank Endorsement, A CLP holder with an "N" endorsement may only operate an empty tank vehicle, and is prohibited from operating any tank vehicle that previously contained hazardous materials that have not been purged of any residue.

CDL Restrictions

CDLs can also come with restrictions that limit the types of vehicles they can operate or indicate that a medical variance has been issued to the license holder.

The table below covers all restrictions regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration but each state may have additional restrictions.

CDL Restrictions

Restriction Code
Description
L
If the driver does not pass the Air Brakes Knowledge Test, does not correctly identify the air brake system components, does not properly conduct an air brake systems check, or does not take the Skills test in a vehicle with a full air brake system, the driver must have an "L" no full air brake restriction placed on their license.
Z
If the driver takes the test in a vehicle with an air-over hydraulic brake system, then they will have a "Z" no full air brake restriction placed on their license. In either case, the driver is not authorized to operate a CMV equipped with full air brakes.
E
If the driver takes the Skills Test in a vehicle that has an automatic transmission, then an "E" no manual transmission restriction is placed on their license.
O
If the driver takes the Skills Test in a Class A vehicle that has a pintle hook or other non-fifth wheel connection, they will have an "O" restriction placed on their license restricting them from driving any Class A vehicle with a fifth wheel connection.
M
If a driver possesses a Class A CDL but obtains his or her passenger or school bus endorsement in a Class B vehicle the State must place an "M" restriction indicating that the driver can only operate Class B and C passenger vehicles or school buses.
N
If a driver possesses a Class B CDL but obtains his or her passenger or school bus endorsement in a Class C vehicle; the State must place an "N" restriction indicating that the driver can only operate Class C passenger vehicles or school buses.
V
If the State is notified by the FMCSA that a medical variance has been issued to the driver, the State must indicate the existence of such a medical variance on the CDLIS driving record and the CDL document using a restriction code "V" to indicate that there is information about the medical variance on the CDLIS record.

CDL School

As of February 7th, 2022, all CLP holders must attend a registered CDL school to complete their entry-level driver training. This includes individuals that are:

  • Obtaining a CDL for the first time
  • Upgrading an existing Class B CDL to a Class A CDL
  • Adding any of the following endorsements for the first time: School Bus (S), Passenger (P), Hazardous Materials (H)

Training

CDL School consists of two types of training:

  • Theory Training – As the name suggests, theory training provides knowledge instruction on the operation of commercial motor vehicles relevant to the CLP holder. This will include pre-trip inspections, how to operate a logbook, and maintaining a vehicle.
  • Behind-the-Wheel Training – Behind-the-wheel training focuses on the actual driving of the commercial vehicle. This portion of the training can either occur on a private course or on public roads. This will include learning how to shift, back up, park, and navigate different road conditions.

How long does CDL school last?

Every CDL program differs but in general, most schools will take 1-2 weeks to cover classroom training and 3-5 weeks of behind-the-wheel training.

How much does CDL school cost?

While CDL school can vary widely depending on the school and program, potential students should budget at least $2,000 but tuition can cost upwards of $8,000 in some cases. 

To avoid paying for CDL school out of pocket, many opt for paid CDL training.

What is paid CDL training?

Paid CDL training is when a company pays for an individual’s CDL training in return for the CDL candidate agreeing to work for the company for a set period of time, usually a year. 

This can work in one of two ways:

  1. The company operates its own truck-driving school
  2. The company will pay or reimburse the tuition for a third-party CDL school

Paid CDL training has several benefits including no out-of-pocket expenses and a guaranteed job at the end of the program.

Companies use paid CDL training as a way to recruit new drivers so if an individual completes the CDL training program but does not drive for the agreed-upon period, they will usually be  required to reimburse the company.

Commercial Driver License FAQs

How many people have their CDL?

According to the US Census, more than 3.5 million individuals work as truck drivers. 

While this does not account for all CDL holders and some drivers may drive trucks that do not require a CDL, it provides a rough approximation of how many CDL holders are in the US.

What is the average salary for a CDL holder?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2021 median pay for heavy tractor-trailer drivers was $48,310. For passenger vehicle drivers, the median pay in 2021 was $37,540.

Can I get my CDL without going to CDL school?

No, it is not possible to get a CDL without attending CDL school. As of February 7th, 2022, the FMCSA requires that all CLP holders must complete entry-driver training before taking their CDL test.

Can I get my CDL online?

No, it is not possible to get a CDL online. While some states allow for a portion of the test to be done online, all CDL applicants are required to take at least a portion of the test in person. This may be limited to the skills tests depending on the state.

How long does it take to get a CDL?

It typically takes 3-4 weeks between getting a commercial learner’s permit and taking the CDL test. The biggest factors that impact the time required are the CDL class program length, the class of license, endorsements required, and student ability.

Do you need a CDL for air brakes?

Yes, individuals need a CDL to drive a vehicle with air brakes. Drivers must have also passed the Air Brakes Knowledge Test and not have a "L" restriction on their license.

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