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CDL Certification Guide

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What is a CDL?

A CDL or “commercial drivers license” is required to operate large vehicles intended for use by a company or organization, otherwise known as a “commercial motor vehicle” or CMV. Some types of vehicles that require a CDL include dump trucks, segmented buses, box trucks and more.

Because operating large, commercial vehicles requires more specific skills than driving a small personal car, a specialized license indicates that you have completed the proper training to be safe and efficient behind the wheel of a CMV.

If you are interested in becoming a truck driver, school bus driver or operating other large vehicles for your career, you will likely need to acquire a CDL before you are eligible to get the job. While CDL steps and requirements vary by state, here is a general guide for what a CDL is and how you can obtain one.

Types of commercial drivers licenses

There are three main CDL classifications: Class A, Class B and Class C. The classification for your CDL will be dependent upon factors such as the vehicle’s weight, purpose and skills required to properly operate it. To be sure about which classification your job requires, check both your state website and job descriptions under the “requirements” section.

Here is a general overview of each CDL class and which might be appropriate for you:

  Class A CDL
A Class A CDL is the most common commercial license, and is appropriate for operating any number of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 or more pounds. The GVWR, also known as GVM or “gross vehicle mass,” is indicated by the manufacturer as the maximum amount of weight a vehicle is allowed to safely carry.

Depending on your endorsements, you might also be able to operate certain Class B and Class C vehicles with a Class A CDL. Examples of vehicles you can operate with a Class A license include livestock carriers, tractor-trailers and passenger vans. If you are seeking jobs as a professional over-the-road truck driver, a class A CDL is right for you.

Class B CDL
A Class B CDL is for operating a single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds. Depending on your endorsements, you might also be able to operate certain Class C vehicles. Examples of vehicles you can operate with a Class B license include large passenger buses, dump trucks and box trucks.

Class A or B: Manual vs. automatic
When preparing to get your class A or B CDL, be mindful of the transmission you are both training with and applying for. For example, if you are practicing on an automatic vehicle with your CLP and find that the CDL driving test requires you to use a manual transmission, you will likely not have the skills required to pass the test.

Be sure to research for the positions you want to apply for to understand the types of vehicle transmissions are used in that industry or position. If you obtain an automatic CDL, for example, there will be a designation placed on your license that you are only trained on automatic vehicles. This might reduce your chances of getting a job in which manual vehicles are used.

Class C CDL
A Class C CDL is for operating a single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds. Other CMVs that carry 16 or more passengers (including the driver) or hazardous materials that do not fall into the Class A or Class B groups can also be driven with a Class C license.

CDL endorsements

In addition to the classification of your CDL, you might also be required to earn certain endorsements depending on the type of vehicle you are trying to operate. Think of a CDL endorsement as a certification or confirmation of a highly specialized skill such as driving a school bus. While endorsements are not always required, they can typically help you be a competitive candidate for jobs and earn a higher salary.

You can earn the following endorsements alongside any CDL:

  • Hazardous materials (H): Exam required
  • Tank vehicles (N): Exam required
  • Passenger (P): Exam and driving test required
  • School bus (S): Exam and driving test required
  • Double or Triple trailers (T): Exam required
  • Tank vehicle and hazardous materials (X): Exam required
How to get a CDL

The steps for obtaining a CDL vary depending on your state, so follow the instructions listed on your state DMV website. Generally, however, there are a few common steps you can prepare to take when planning to apply for your CDL:

  1. Understand your state’s age restrictions. While some states allow drivers to get a CDL at 18, others require you to be at least 20 years of age. Some states also allow drivers under 20 to drive only within the state listed on their license. If you are applying as an 18-year-old, there might be additional steps you are required to take such as completing a state-approved driver’s education program.
  2. Prepare for your CLP. To practice the skills you will need to perform during the CLP driving test, you will need to obtain a CLP, or “commercial learner’s permit.” Depending on your state, you will need to provide certain documentation such as a clean driving record, medical proof that you are able to operate CMVs (a Department of Transportation physical exam) and others.

    You will also need to pass a written exam prepared by your state and pay associated fees. Use the CLP to practice maneuvers and skills listed in your state’s CDL manual that will be required of you during the CDL skills test.

  3. Prepare for your CDL. Depending on your state, you will likely be required to possess the CLP for at least two weeks prior to completing the CDL driving skills test. After this period, you will likely be required to complete both a written exam and a driving skills test. You might also be required to submit additional paperwork or complete additional courses depending on your state’s rules and regulations. You might also have to pay an additional processing fee during the final stages.
  4. Earn any required endorsements. You should also be sure to earn the appropriate CDL endorsements specific to the vehicle you will be driving. This involves paying an additional fee and completing a written exam and/or a driving skills test, depending on the endorsement.

Once you have completed all required courses, driving tests, exams, paperwork and fees, be sure to collect your CDL. Some states will give you the license in-person once you’ve passed a final exam while others will send it to you in the mail. Once you get it, carefully review for any required updates or mistakes that are listed on your license to ensure it is ready to take on the road.

Jobs that typically require a CDL

Jobs that involve transporting people, materials and products are crucial to maintaining a healthy economy. If you have strong driving skills and the desire to be behind the wheel instead of behind a desk, a driving job might be a good fit for you. Here are a just a few examples of driving jobs that might be a good fit for you:

  • School bus driver
    CDL requirement: Class A or Class B + School bus (S) endorsement
    National average salary: $29,915 per year
  • Delivery driver
    CDL requirement: Class A or Class B
    National average salary: $37,418 per year
  • Truck driver
    CDL requirement: Class A or Class B
    National average salary: $71,720 per year
  • Hazardous materials driver
    CDL requirement: Class A, B or C + Hazardous materials (H) endorsement
    National average salary: $71,720 per year
  • Van driver
    CDL requirement: Class A + Passenger (P) endorsement (optional)
    National average salary: $105,604 per year