How to Get a CDL License

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 19, 2018
Truck driving on the asphalt road in rural landscape at sunset with dark clouds

Driving a commercial vehicle is tougher than piloting that little hatchback you use to get to work every day. If you doubt this, just take a look at the size of some of the buses and trucks you pass on freeways. Operating commercial vehicles safely requires more skill, knowledge and experience than do cars. That's why the tests for getting a commercial driver's license (CDL) are tougher than for a passenger vehicle.

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In order to get a commercial driver's license, you must pass a written knowledge test and a driving skills test geared to the higher levels of ability and know-how you'll need to drive bigger vehicles.

What Is a CDL License?

Don't think you can get a regular driver's license and hop behind the driver's seat of a 12-wheeler. To get your ticket to drive commercial motor vehicles in the United States, you'll have to get a commercial driver's license, also known as a CDL. The federal government requires CDLs, and has set up three different classes of CDL, Class A, Class B and Class C. The one you need depends on the gross vehicle weight rating of the vehicle you intend to drive. You will also need to qualify for license endorsements if you will be driving:

  • a truck with double or triple trailers
  • a truck with a tank
  • a truck carrying hazardous materials
  • a passenger vehicle

For example, if you plan to drive a passenger van, you will probably need only a Class C license. If you want to drive a big truck with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 lbs. or more, towing something of 10,000 pounds or less, you'll need a Class B CDL. To driver a tractor-trailer or a truck and trailer combo of 26,001 lbs. or more towing a vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 lbs., you'll need a CDL class A. With either Class A or B licenses, you may need endorsements depending on what you are driving and what you are towing.

Do CDL License Requirements Vary by State?

No state can issue a CDL without meeting federal guidelines. However, states can enact tougher standards.

To get a CDL license, you'll first need a permit that allows you to drive on public roads with a CDL-licensed driver beside you. Obtaining a permit involves not just passing the knowledge tests for the type of driving you want to do, but also having a clear driving record for 10 years and proof that you are medically qualified, like a Department of Transportation medical card, requiring a DOT physical. The state in which you are taking the test may require identity and residency proof, plus fees.

For example, California requires proof of identity, residency, citizenship or legal presence in the country and a Social Security number. You also have to pass a vision test, give a thumb print and have a photo taken. In California, in order to prove you are medically clear for the license, you have to submit a completed Medical Examination Report.

In Tennessee, the standards match closely with federal guidelines. Only the DOT medical card is required. However, the state adds your medical certification status and the information on your medical examiner’s certificate to your Commercial Driver’s License System record.

After you have had the permit for at least 14 days, you can take the skills test. Some states require that you take a CDL training course first. Once you pass, you will receive the CDL, often in the mail. The validity period varies. For example, in California the CDL is valid for five years. In Washington D.C., it is valid for eight years.

How Much Does it Cost to Get Your CDL License?

Costs to get your CDL vary among states. In California, the charge is $45 for a Class C and $76 for a Class A or B commercial license. Endorsements are extra. In Tennessee, the charge for a general Class A CDL license is $46, while Class B and Class C licenses cost $41.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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