CDL License Requirements

Governed at the federal level by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the commercial truck driving industry has undergone progressive regulatory and process changes over the last couple of decades, with the intention to give every motorist a safe experience on our nation's roadways.

In partnership with the national Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA), FMCSA maintains a framework of federal minimum regulations that govern safety, licensing, professional development and discipline for commercial truck drivers. While each state does have some exceptions and variations to the federal minimum, FMCSA is the overarching body that covers transportation of cargo by land transport.

Basic CDL License Requirements

Monitored and processed by the state, common CDL license requirements include the following:

  • Age restrictions
  • Personal identification documentation, including proof of citizenship
  • Medical and physical standards
  • Language requirements
  • Written and knowledge test(s)
  • Skills and road test(s)

Applying for a CDL License

To apply for a CDL in any state, you must already possess a valid non-commercial driver's license. With a personal license, CDL applicants can show that they already understand the fundamentals of signage, road safety, and vehicle operation.

In most states, applicants must be at least 18 years old with one or two years of personal driving experience, depending on the state in question. Some states do allow applicants who are seventeen to apply with the understanding that they must be 18 to drive. Additional age restrictions may be a factor of employment.

To drive interstate (that is, out-of-state) or to transport hazardous materials and waste, you must be at least 21 years old. When you apply, you need your personal driver's license (often called a Class D, Class DL, or Class E license), your social security card, or proof of the number. You may also need other documents such as a birth certificate, valid passport, or green card.

To drive intrastate (that is, within the state), you must be at least 18 years old. Applicants must be sure to bring their personal valid and current driver's license (Class D, DL or E), social security card, birth and domiciliary documents as with interstate applications.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (Section 391.11) CDL drivers must speak English at a sufficient level to communicate verbally, read traffic signs, respond to official inquiries, and fill out reports and records.

With prerequisite criteria (above) in place, successful applicants may book and pay for their state's CDL Test of Knowledge, followed by their state's CDL Road Skills Test.

In addition to the CDL Test of Knowledge, applicants may be required by their employer or career goals to take additional tests for endorsements and special conditions they may encounter while driving truck.

Written CDL tests may include:

  • General knowledge (mandatory)
  • Passenger transport
  • School bus
  • Air brake
  • Combination vehicle (tractor-trailer or 'semi')
  • Hazardous materials
  • Tanker vehicles
  • Double or triple trailers

The skill and road test requires a vehicle, which is typically supplied by a truck driving school though it's best to make firm arrangements with the school in question. The driving test - sometimes called the practical test - includes a pre-trip inspection, backing up, space control and maneuvers, and general driving skills, much like your original driver's test.

While additional classifications of CDL might be added, the FMCSA dictates that the three classes of CDL that you can test for are Classes A, B, and C. Each have their own restrictions regarding vehicle class, size, and weight, and each have practical considerations during the testing process. You must test in the class of vehicle for which you would like to be licensed.

Learn more about CDL training programs.

Types of CDL Licenses

While there are some states that have rules that are more stringent regarding vehicle classes, restrictions, and endorsements, read below to understand the CDL class types.

CDL Class A License

A Class A CDL allows you to drive commercial vehicles where the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVWR) must be more than 26,000 pounds and the rear portion (the 'trailer') must weigh more than 10,000 pounds. Class A licenses have lots of flexibility as the license holder can usually also operate Class B and C commercial vehicles as long as no endorsements or restrictions apply. Class A licensing is usually required for truckers who wish to drive interstate freight routes.

CDL Class B License

A Class B CDL allows the driver to operate commercial vehicles that are 'straight' or combination, where the total vehicle weight (GVWR) must be 26,000 pounds or more but any towed portion must weigh less than 10,000 pounds. Often, truckers whose professional speciality is intrastate or 'short hauls' or 'commercial deliveries' possess this type of commercial vehicle and license. Operators with a Class B license are also clear to drive Class C vehicles as long as additional training or endorsements are not needed and no restrictions are in effect.

CDL Class C License

Class C commercial licensing ensures that all other commercial vehicles fall within the FMCSA regulatory framework. Class C CDL applies specifically to vehicles that are designed to transport 15+ people including the driver, and vehicles that must be placarded for hazardous materials, waste, toxins and select agents. Class C licensed drivers are able to drive Class C vehicles only, and are responsible to make sure they have the proper endorsements on their CDL.

Please note that it is the vehicle's actual tonnage during transport that will be used to determine class and regulatory adherence.

Vehicles that are designed and used for military, construction, chauffeur, emergency services, funeral services, restaurant food delivery, agriculture or recreational purposes may or may not fall under commercial licensing. Often, this is a joint agreement between the state in question and the FMCSA.

Learn more becoming a truck driver.

CDL Restrictions

The CDL restriction system is designed to quickly indicate to law enforcement and licensing clerks about the driver in question. Each state usually has more CDL restrictions, and additional restriction codes, but the following restrictions are listed for every state and determined at the federal level:

  • L: No full air brakes (vehicle not equipped or driver could not identify components)
  • Z: No full air brakes (driver operates an air over hydraulic brake system and is not authorized to operate with full air brakes)
  • E: No manual transmission (driver operates a rig with automatic transmission)
  • O: Class A without 5th wheel (driver operates a vehicle that has a pintle hook or other non-fifth wheel connection)
  • M: Class B and C only (driver is not Class A certified)
  • N: Class C only (driver is not Class A or B certified)
  • V: Medical variance (driving record database and CDL list additional medical information)

CDL Endorsements

Similar to the CDL restriction system, the endorsement system is designed to quickly inform state troopers, police, and licensing bodies about the skills and abilities of the driver in question. States can create additional endorsements, but what follows are listed for every state and articulated at the national level:

  • T: Double/Triple Trailers (driver is licensed to pull more than one trailer at a time)
  • P: Passenger (driver can carry passengers)
  • N: Tank vehicle (driver can transport liquids in an appropriate vehicle)
  • H: Hazardous materials (driver can transport hazardous materials, and has passed the accompanying TSA fingerprint background check)
  • X: Combination of tank vehicle and hazardous materials (Driver can transport liquid hazardous materials or wastes)
  • S: School Bus (driver can transport students on a school bus)

From here, feel free to explore BestTruckingSchools.com's state CDL licensing pages for your state, or our list of trucking schools throughout the nation to find the one that's right for you to help you further your career on the open road.

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