Overview – How to get a CDL license
Driving a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), such as a large truck or a bus requires a much higher level of special skills, physical abilities, knowledge and experience than driving a car, SUV, or a pickup truck. Because of the greater responsibility, a commercial driver’s license (CDL) is required to drive a commercial vehicle. So, how do you get a CDL license? There are several steps involved.
Step 1: Decide which type of commercial driver’s license (CDL) you want to get
There are three (3) classes of CDL licenses:
Class A: This classification is required for driving a semi-truck or tractor-trailer. Both of these terms are used interchangeably because their meanings are the same. The terms are used to describe a combination vehicle that has a gross combination vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more. This includes a towed trailer(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating over 10,000 pounds.
Class B: This classification is required for driving a truck that is a single vehicle that has a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more. It also includes any truck that has a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more that is used to tow a trailer that has a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less.
Class C: This classification is required for any vehicles, single or combination, that do not meet the definition of either Class A or Class B. This includes buses that are designed or used for transporting 16 passengers or more, including the driver or is transporting hazardous materials (49 U.S.C. 5103) that require a placard (49 C.F.R. 172, subpart F) or is transporting any quantity of materials listed as a select agent or toxin (42 C.F.R. 73).
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations, any vehicle for which a CDL license is required is considered a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV).
Step 2: Decide which endorsements you want to have on your commercial driver’s license (CDL)
There are six (6) endorsement codes that can be placed on a CDL license:
T: This endorsement code is required for you to drive a semi-truck that has double or triple trailers. To have a T endorsement requires a knowledge test only.
P: This endorsement code is required for you to drive a vehicle that is designed or used for transporting 16 passengers or more, including the driver. To have a P endorsement requires a knowledge test and skills test.
N: This endorsement code is required for you to drive a truck, which is a single or combination tank vehicle. To have a N endorsement requires a knowledge test only.
H: This endorsement code is required for you to drive a vehicle, single or combination, that transports hazardous materials. To have a H endorsement requires a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) background check to be completed and requires a knowledge test.
X: This endorsement code is a combination of the N endorsement for tank vehicles and the H endorsement for hazardous materials and requires a knowledge test only.
Related: Tank Vehicle Endorsement; Tank Vehicle Endorsement Study Guide; Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Endorsement; Hazardous Material Endorsement Study Guide; Hazardous Materials Endorsement Disqualifying Criminal Offenses
S: This endorsement is required for you to drive a school bus and requires a P endorsement and a knowledge test and a skills test.
Step 3: Get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) manual from your state’s licensing agency
These manuals are available free of charge from your state’s licensing agency and are available either in print at their local offices or can be downloaded from their websites. These manuals lay out the general requirements and qualifications for getting a commercial driver’s license (CDL) in your state.
Related: State Licensing Agencies and Commercial Driver’s License Manuals and Handbooks; Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) general requirements and qualifications; Commercial Driver’s License Disqualifying Offenses
Step 4: Get a D.O.T. physical and D.O.T. medical card
You must be medically qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle. In order to get a commercial learner’s permit (CLP) and commercial driver’s license (CDL) you must pass a D.O.T. physical by a licensed physician and that licensed physician must fill out a D.O.T. medical card.
Step 5: Study for the general knowledge test
You will be required to pass a general knowledge test in order to get a commercial learner’s permit (CLP) and commercial driver’s license (CDL). You will only need to take and pass the general knowledge test once. It is best to use all the resources available to make sure you pass the general knowledge test the first time. The best approach is to use your state commercial driver’s manual in conjunction with study guides and practice tests.
Step 6: Get a commercial learner’s permit (CLP)
A commercial learner’s permit (CLP) allows you to practice driving a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) on public roads, but you must have a person sitting next you that has a CDL license.
In order to get a commercial learner’s permit, your state licensing agency is going to request documentation to prove your identity and residency. You will need to contact your local diver’s license office, visit their website, or look up in your state commercial driver’s license (CDL) manual what forms of documentation your state requires.
Your driving record will also be checked, going back 10 years. The driving record check is done in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, so your driving record in every state you have ever been licensed to drive in will show up (note: it is illegal to have a driver’s license in more than one state).
You will also be required to show your D.O.T. medical card to prove that you have completed and successfully passed a D.O.T. physical.
You must also take and pass the commercial driver’s license (CDL) general knowledge exam before a commercial learner’s permit (CLP) will be issued to you. Upon passing the general knowledge exam, you can also take any endorsement exams you want to at that time as well as the air brakes exam if you are getting a commercial learner’s permit to operate a vehicle equipped with air brakes.
- You will have to take one or more knowledge tests, depending on what class of CDL license and what endorsements you need.
- The CDL license knowledge tests include:
- The General Knowledge Test, taken by all applicants.
- The Passenger Transport Test, taken by all bus driver applicants.
- The School Bus Test is required if you want to drive a school bus.
- The Air Brakes Test, which you must take if your vehicle has air brakes.
- The Combination Vehicles Test, which is required if you want to drive combination vehicles.
- The Hazardous Materials Test, required if you want to haul hazardous material or waste in amounts which require placarding.
- The Tanker Test, required if you want to haul liquids in bulk.
- The Doubles/Triples Test, required if you want to pull double or triple trailers.
However, there are only 3 endorsements allowed on a CLP and they are P, S, and N. This does not mean you cannot or should not take the exams for other endorsements you may want on your CDL, because they will be added to your CDL when you get it.
Related: State Licensing Agencies and Commercial Driver’s License Manuals and Handbooks; Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) General Knowledge Study Guide and Practice Test; Air Brakes Study Guide and Practice Test
Step 7: Get your commercial driver’s license (CDL)
It is a federal regulation that you must posses a commercial learner’s permit (CLP) for at least 14 days before taking the CDL license skills test. That is the minimum, most states require that you successfully complete a state licensed CDL training program before being allowed to take the skills test. You must take these tests in the type of vehicle for which you wish to be licensed.
If you are on active duty or a military veteran who drove heavy duty vehicles in the military, the FMCSA under 49 C.F.R. 383.77 authorizes state licensing agencies to waive skills test. According to the FMCSA, “the latest information (February 2017) indicates that more than 19,000 current and former military have taken advantage of the Skills Test Waiver”. (Source: Military Skills Test Waiver Program)
The CDL license skills test has three (3) parts and you must pass all of them:
- Pre-Trip Vehicle Inspection: You will be tested to see if you know whether your vehicle is safe to drive. You will be asked to do a pre-trip inspection of your vehicle and explain to the examiner what you would inspect and why.
- Basic Vehicle Control: You will be tested on your skill to control the vehicle. You will be asked to move your vehicle forward, backward, and turn it within a defined area. These areas may be marked with traffic lanes, cones, barriers, or something similar. The examiner will tell you how each control test is to be done.
- On-Road Driving: You will be tested on your skill to safely drive your vehicle in a variety of traffic situations. The situations may include left and right turns, intersections, railroad crossings, curves, up and down grades, single or multi-lane roads, streets or highways. The examiner will tell you where to drive.
Related: Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Programs and Assistance for Military Veterans; Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Pre-Trip Inspection; State Licensing Agencies and Commercial Driver’s License Manuals and Handbooks
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