What is a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)?

October 25, 2021

CDL

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Key Takeaways

To operate a commercial vehicle, you’re going to need a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Depending on the kind of work and vehicle driven, CDLs have different classes and endorsements associated with them. Learn more about the requirements to get a commercial driver’s license.

What is a commercial driver’s license (CDL)?

A commercial driver’s license or CDL authorizes an individual to operate commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) and buses over 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight. Drivers must get a CDL if they operate in interstate, intrastate, or foreign commerce. 

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT)—regulates state testing and licensing standards of CDL holders. CMV drivers can only obtain a CDL after they pass knowledge and skills tests administered by the state. Most drivers need to get their CDL through their home state via their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It’s illegal to have a CDL license in more than one state.

What are the classes of CDL?

There are three CDL classes available:

  • Class A: A license required to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided that the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the towed vehicle is heavier than 10,000 pounds.

  • Class B: A license required to operate a single vehicle with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds or tow a vehicle not heavier than 10,000 pounds.

  • Class C: A license required to operate a vehicle designed to transport 16 or more occupants (including you, the driver) or transport hazardous materials (hazmat).

CDL endorsements

Different CDL endorsements dictate which CMV a driver can operate. When applying for their CDL, a driver also needs to apply for the endorsement they want. There are six endorsements available:

  • H endorsement: Allows the CDL holder to operate a vehicle loaded with hazmat.

  • N endorsement: Drivers with this endorsement can operate a tanker vehicle.

  • P endorsement: Allows drivers to operate a passenger vehicle or bus that seats 16 (including the driver) or more people. This endorsement does not include a school bus.

  • S endorsement: The endorsement needed for school bus drivers.

  • T endorsement: Allows drivers to drive either a double or triple trailer.

  • X endorsement: A combination of endorsement H and N. This allows drivers to operate a vehicle hauling hazmat within a tanker.

Federal regulations require a person applying for a hazardous materials endorsement to undergo a security threat assessment. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must complete the background check before the DMV can issue the endorsement.

How to get a CDL

There are several steps to getting a CDL. Besides passing knowledge tests and skills tests, there are also medical and residency requirements. CDL drivers also need to select which type of vehicle and driving they want to get the license for.

Here is an overview of what’s needed to get a CDL. (See FMCSA for full CDL requirements and guidelines.)

Documents needed to get a CDL

  • Proof of identification. Drivers must be at least 21 to drive between states or 18 to drive intrastate. 

  • A medical qualification. Drivers may be required to submit a medical examination report. Depending on when the last examination took place, they may need to get a DOT physical from a medical examiner.

  • Social Security card. A Social Security number is required to get a CDL. 

  • Commercial driver’s license application

  • 10-year driver history record. For drivers who have operated a CMV in another state or under a different name.

Starting on February 7, 2022, drivers applying to get a Class A or Class B CDL for the first time are subject to Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) regulations. These regulations establish a Federal standard for training. Applicants must complete this training before they can take the CDL skills test. 

First, drivers must review the CDL manual and get a commercial learner’s permit (CLP). This permit authorizes a driver to practice on public roads with a qualified CDL holder sitting in the passenger seat.

Many drivers opt to attend a CDL training program or truck driving school, which helps new drivers get familiar with the vehicles and commercial driving. Some trucking companies offer apprenticeship programs where drivers can learn on the job, partnering with a seasoned driver.

Drivers must hold a CLP for 14 days before taking the skills test. The skills test consists of three parts: a vehicle inspection, basic controls and a road test. After passing the skills test, drivers will get an interim CDL.

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