Everything You Need to Know About Commercial Driver’s Licenses

Commercial vehicles play a crucial role in maintaining America’s economic health. Every year, these vehicles transport well over half of all the freight transported across the country. This equates to billions upon billions of dollars in commercial goods.

To keep the goods flowing, the nation relies on millions of drivers licensed to operate commercial vehicles. In exchange for their hard work, these drivers often earn excellent salaries and benefits. However, not just anyone can work as a commercial driver. Federal law mandates that all drivers follow a strict set of procedures that includes proper licensing.

Interested in becoming a licensed commercial driver? Here’s everything you need to know to reach your goals and prepare for success.

What is a Commercial Driver’s License?

A commercial driver’s license (CDL) is a type of license designed for people who drive vehicles used for commercial purposes. That includes everyone from bus and delivery drivers to tractor-trailer drivers. Not all commercial licenses are the same. Instead, they fall into three large, separate categories.

The guidelines for obtaining your CDL license come from two sources: the federal government and your local state government. At the federal level, guideline responsibilities fall on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA. (This agency forms part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.)

In addition, each state has its own specific licensing requirements. Some of these requirements may follow right along with FMCSA standards. However, your state may also set standards that are stricter than federal law mandates.

While the FMCSA sets the framework for commercial licensing, it doesn’t actually issue licenses. Instead, you obtain your commercial driver’s license from the responsible agency in your state. This is usually the Department of Motor Vehicles or an equivalent agency.

Types of Commercial Licenses

The three categories of commercial driver’s licenses are:

  • Class A
  • Class B
  • Class C

Each of these classes has its own set of standards, based on something called gross vehicle weight. This term refers to the total weight of a commercial vehicle when it travels. That includes the weight of the vehicle itself. It also includes:

  • The weight of all cargo that vehicle carries
  • The weight of all passengers
  • Your body weight

If you drive a tractor-trailer or a similar vehicle, the weight standard is known as the gross combination weight rating, or GCWR. This figure includes both the truck and the separate trailer. If you drive a single, non-combined vehicle, the standard is known as the gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR.

Let’s take a detailed look at each class of commercial driver’s license.

Class A CDL

The Class A commercial driver’s license covers tractor-trailers and other combined (i.e., multi-part) vehicles. There are two weight requirements for Class A. First, the combined vehicles must have a gross combination weight rating of at least 26,001 pounds. In addition, if you’re hauling a trailer, that trailer must have a GCWR of more than 10,000 pounds.

In addition to tractor-trailers, vehicles that typically require a Class A license include:

  • Flatbed trucks
  • Tanker trucks
  • Livestock carriers

Under certain circumstances, you can also use a Class A license while driving a Class B or Class C vehicle.

Class B CDL

The Class B commercial driver’s license covers single, non-combined vehicles that have a GVWR of at least 26,001 pounds. It also includes any single vehicle that can tow another vehicle with a GVWR of under 10,000 pounds.

Vehicles in this class include:

  • Large box delivery trucks
  • Large school buses
  • Large municipal buses
  • Large buses used for tourism
  • Segmented buses
  • Certain kinds of dump trucks

Under certain circumstances, you can also use a Class B license while driving Class C vehicles.

Class C CDL

This category covers smaller single vehicles. To qualify, a vehicle must meet at least one of several criteria. These criteria are:

  • A gross vehicle weight rating of no more than 26,000 pounds
  • The capacity to tow another vehicle with a GVWR of less than 10,000 pounds
  • The capacity to haul at least 16 passengers, including the person driving the vehicle

Vehicles in Class C include both double- and triple-wide trailers. They also include:

  • Smaller buses
  • Smaller hazardous material (HazMat) vehicles
  • Smaller tank trucks
  • Passenger vans
  • Any combination vehicle that doesn’t fall under Class A or Class B regulations

You can only hold one class of CDL license at a time.

Things to Do Before Seeking Your Commercial License

If you want to drive commercially, the first thing you should do is check the age requirements in your state. In most states, you have to be 21 before you can apply for your license. However, some states will issue something called a single-state CDL to drivers between the ages of 18 and 20. This kind of license only permits you to drive commercially within the borders of one state. You cannot cross state lines at any time.

If you meet the age qualifications in your state, the next step is obtaining a copy of an official CDL manual. Each state produces its own version of this document. It will include everything you need to know in order to get licensed in that state. As a rule, you can get a free CDL manual from the same agency responsible for issuing other kinds of state driver’s licenses.

Before going any further, you should also determine which type(s) of commercial vehicle you will drive. This is important because that vehicle may fall under Class A, Class B or Class C. To drive legally, you’ll need to get a license that covers your chosen class.

Obtaining Your CDL

At this point, you can start the official process required to obtain your commercial driver’s license. This process has multiple steps. Your to-do list includes getting your commercial learners permit, or CLP. It also includes passing your commercial driver’s license test.

Obtaining Your Commercial Learner’s Permit

A commercial learner’s permit allows you to practice your driving skills on public roads. However, to do so, you must have a current commercial driver’s license holder with you in the passenger seat. In addition, you must:

  • Pass a review of your driving record going back a full 10 years
  • Show proof that your state considers you medically fit to drive

To drive most kinds of commercial vehicles, you must hold something called a medical examiner’s certificate, or DOT card. DOT cards are issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation. To obtain one, you must undergo a thorough physical examination. Only licensed medical professionals registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can conduct your physical. The types of professionals who can register with the FMCSA include:

  • Medical doctors
  • Doctors of osteopathy (also known as DOs)
  • Chiropractors
  • Advanced practice nurses
  • Physician assistants

The results of a DOT exam are good for no longer than two years. Whenever they think it’s necessary, medical professionals can also set the valid period of a DOT card at less than two years. This may happen to you if you have a significant medical issue.

In addition to meeting these universal requirements, you may have to take other steps to get your learner’s permit. For example, your state may have its own guidelines for validating your identity. It may also have specific guidelines for proving that you live within state boundaries.

You can only take your CDL test after holding your learner’s permit for at least two weeks.

Practicing While Holding a Learner’s Permit

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration strongly suggests that you practice before taking your CDL test. That’s true because you’ll need to demonstrate competency in several areas before you qualify for a passing grade. In some parts of the country, state law may only allow you to take your test if you can show you’ve received adequate training.

Passing Your Commercial Driver’s Test

The commercial driver’s license test is also known as the Skills Test. It consists of three separate areas of knowledge:

  • The Vehicle Inspections Test
  • The Basic Controls Test
  • The Road Test

You must make a passing grade in each of these areas to pass the overall exam.

The Vehicle Inspections Test

The Inspections Test checks your knowledge of what must be inspected before you can legally operate your chosen type of vehicle. That knowledge includes specific features of the vehicle. It also includes specific types of vehicle equipment.

This test is given for a couple reasons. First, the state needs to know that you understand how to maintain your vehicle in safe, drivable condition. The state also needs to know that you understand how to inspect your vehicle properly.

During the test, you have to perform an actual inspection.  To do so, you’ll do a walk-around of your vehicle. As you go, you’ll:

  • Point out essential features and equipment
  • Tell your examiner the name of each feature or piece of equipment
  • Explain to your examiner why each item needs to undergo inspection

Specific items you must point out and explain include:

  • Turn signals
  • Brake lights
  • The vehicle’s horn
  • Emergency flashers

This is only a small sample of the components covered by the test. Check your state’s CDL manual for a complete rundown of what you need to know. Some states provide training aids that you can refer to while completing this portion of the CDL exam.

At the time of the test, all features and equipment on your vehicle must be in good working condition. If they’re not, you can’t pass the overall exam.

The Basic Controls Test

During this test, you must demonstrate that you know how to keep your vehicle under control in real-world conditions. To do so, you’ll have to perform certain close maneuvers that are common for commercial vehicles. Examples of these real-world maneuvers include:

  • Backing up in a straight line
  • Backing up at an offset angle
  • Docking in an alley
  • Parallel parking

To pass this test, you must do several things. First, you must avoid hitting any of the boundary markers (cones, etc.) used for the required maneuvers. You must do so while checking your position or repositioning your vehicle no more than a set number of times. In addition, you must follow proper safety procedures at all times. Finally, you must obey all of your examiner’s instructions and directions.

The Road Test

This test requires you to drive your vehicle in real-world road conditions. To do so, you’ll need to demonstrate your skills in various types of common circumstances. The Road Test requires you to navigate your way through actual road traffic. It may also require you to navigate through simulated scenarios described by your examiner.  

After you complete all three tests, your examiner will grade your overall performance. In some states, your scores are calculated on paper forms. However, your state may rely on an electronic tally system instead. Depending on your state’s system, you may receive your results on the same day you take the CDL exam. You may also need to wait until your results are mailed to you.

It’s important to note that not everyone passes their commercial driver’s license test. You can increase your odds by studying thoroughly and giving yourself enough time to review and practice.

Commercial Learner’s Permit Endorsements

Your commercial learner’s permit may only allow you to drive in certain specific conditions. While these conditions are restrictions, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration refers to them as endorsements. The three CPL endorsement categories are:

Endorsement N

If your learner’s permit carries this endorsement, you can only operate a tank vehicle when it’s empty. In addition, if a vehicle once held hazardous materials, you can only drive it under certain circumstances. Specifically, all the residue from those materials must be cleared from the vehicle.

Endorsement P

This endorsement places restrictions on your ability to carry passengers while holding a CPL. It specifies that you can only drive:

  • The CDL holder accompanying you while you drive
  • Other people training with you on the same vehicle
  • Authorized instructors and examiners

Endorsement S (School Bus Endorsement)

This endorsement places restrictions on who you can carry in a school bus while holding a CPL. The list of people you can legally drive is the same as the list used under Endorsement P.

Federal CDL Endorsements and Restrictions

Endorsements and restrictions are two separate, distinct categories for people who hold commercial driver’s licenses. Endorsements give you permission to do things that other licensed drivers can’t. To receive this permission, you must go through additional testing. CDL restrictions are the opposite of CDL endorsements. They prevent you from doing certain things that other licensed drivers can.

Endorsements

The FMCSA maintains six federal endorsement categories:

  • Endorsement H – This endorsement allows you to transport hazardous materials. To receive it, you must pass a test that proves your knowledge of safe handling practices.
  • Endorsement N – Endorsement N allows you to drive a tank truck. To obtain it, you must pass a knowledge test.
  • Endorsement P – This endorsement allows you to transport passengers. In addition to proving your general knowledge, you must pass a practical skills test.
  • Endorsement S – Endorsement S allows you to drive a school bus. To obtain it, you must pass both a knowledge and a skills test.
  • Endorsement T – This endorsement allows you to drive double- and triple-wide trailers. You must qualify by passing a knowledge test.
  • Endorsement X – Endorsement X is a combination endorsement. It allows you to drive a tank truck that contains hazardous materials. To receive it, you must pass a knowledge test.

Restrictions

A total of seven federal restrictions can be placed on your commercial license. They are:

  • Restriction E – If you have this restriction on your license, you can only drive vehicles with automatic transmissions. You’ll receive it if you take your CDL test in an automatic vehicle instead of one with a manual transmission.
  • Restriction L – If you have Restriction L on your CDL, you can’t drive a vehicle equipped with full air brakes. You’ll receive it if you fail the air brake portion of your exam. This can happen in three different situations. First, you can fail to identify all of the components in an air brake system. You can also fail to check the function of an air brake system in the proper manner. You’ll also receive Restriction L if you take your exam in a vehicle not equipped with full air brakes.
  • Restriction M – This a restriction placed on certain drivers with Class A licenses. You’ll receive it if you hold this license but drive a Class B vehicle while testing for a school bus or passenger vehicle endorsement. Restriction M means that you can only drive students or other passengers in a Class B or Class C vehicle.  
  • Restriction N – This restriction is placed on certain drivers with Class B licenses. You’ll receive it if you hold this license but drive a Class C vehicle while testing for a school bus or passenger vehicle endorsement. Restriction N means that you can only transport students or other passengers in a Class C vehicle.
  • Restriction O – Restriction O is a Class A vehicle restriction. If you have it, you can’t drive a Class A vehicle equipped with a fifth wheel connection. (This is the term for a hitch that allows you to connect to a separate cargo carrier.)
  • Restriction V – This is a medical variance restriction. (A medical variance is an exemption that some drivers receive for specific medical conditions. It allows you to work as long as your condition is known and reported.) Your license will come with Restriction V if the FMCSA tells your state of residence that you’ve received such a variance.  
  • Restriction Z – You will receive this restriction if you take your CDL test in a vehicle equipped with an air/hydraulic brake system. It prevents you from legally driving a commercial vehicle equipped with full air brakes.

State CDL Endorsements and Restrictions

Federal endorsements and restrictions set a minimum standard for commercial drivers across the country. Some states follow these guidelines exactly. However, other states go beyond the federal standard and issue additional kinds of endorsements and restrictions. Check the rules in your state to get a full rundown of what’s required to operate a given type of vehicle.

Commercial Driver’s License Training

There is no federal law requiring you to seek training before you apply for your CDL. However, it’s smart to do so for a couple of reasons. First, your state may have its own guidelines that require you to undergo training. And even if your state doesn’t have such guidelines, training just makes sense.

Why? The knowledge and skills you need to drive commercially are far beyond those you need to drive a passenger car, truck or SUV. Not only are commercial vehicles much bigger, they also contain features, components and equipment not found on passenger vehicles. To pass your CDL test, you must possess a working knowledge of everything that pertains to your chosen type of vehicle. In addition, you must possess the skill needed to put that knowledge to work in real-world conditions.

You can potentially get all of the knowledge you need from your state’s official CDL manual. However, that’s kind of like having a classroom text but no instructor. A CDL school will provide you with experienced instructors who can help you take your knowledge beyond the basics.

CDL classes can also help you in other important ways. For example, they can give you access to the type(s) of vehicle you intend to drive. This allows you to get a firsthand impression of how different vehicles move and handle. It also provides firsthand exposure to vehicle systems and inspection procedures.

There are even more benefits to attending a CDL school. At the end of your coursework and training, you can take part in mock tests that mimic the exam you must pass to get your license. In addition, some providers feature job placement services. These services can make it much easier for you to find work once you obtain your commercial driver’s license.

Importantly, it won’t take you long to complete your CDL classes. In fact, you can get all the training you need in less than a month. Training programs are also relatively affordable. Chances are, you can find one in your area that fits your budget.

Once you’re up and running, it only remains for you to find a job. TruckerSearch has a nationwide database of to find jobs or to locate drivers.