Getting Your CDL: The Complete Guide

Last Updated: Apr 19, 2019

What New Truck Drivers Need To Know About Getting A CDL:

The CDL process is governed by individual states, under the guidelines of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)

Drivers can get their CDL through private schools, company-sponsored training , or on their own.

There are certain age restrictions, legal issues, and medical conditions which potential CDL drivers need to be aware of.

Getting your CDL will require passing a written knowledge exam, as well as a driving test in an actual truck, covering the basics of driving a tractor-trailer.

There will be fees associated with getting your CDL permit, license, and some endorsements. These may vary by state.

Check with your individual state for specific requirements. The FMCSA issues a general CDL manual template, but the states are free to add to it as needed.

See Also: State CDL Manuals Download.

How Do Drivers Get Their CDL?

  • Decide That You REALLY Want To Become A Truck Driver:

    Factors that potential truck drivers will need to consider include:

    • Do Your Homework:

      As with many jobs, there are a lot of hoops that you will have to jump through on your way to becoming a truck driver. It is critical that potential truck drivers understand what they are getting themselves into, as well as what will be required of them.

    • Qualifications:

      The FMCSA has established guidelines for commercial truck drivers, and each state may have its own variations on these. Age restrictions, legal issues, and medical conditions are all things which could disqualify a potential CDL driver. Always check with your state licensing bureau or DMV regarding qualifications for CDL drivers.

      See Also: CDL Qualifications

    • Family Matters:

      Most new CDL licensees will be driving, at least initially, long-haul over the road (OTR) routes. Meaning they may be away from home for extended periods of time. Considerations should be made as to the kind of home life that a driver has, and wants, and how being an OTR driver affects those things.

    • The Trucking Lifestyle:

      In addition to being away from home for extended periods of time, truck drivers will have to deal with a multitude of conditions on the road. Heavy traffic, unsafe drivers, hazardous weather conditions, meeting scheduling deadlines, and living inside a tiny space are all things to be considered.

    See Also: TruckingTruth's Truck Driver's Career Guide.

  • Choose Company-Sponsored or Private Truck-Driving School:

    Generally, anyone who wants to get their Class A CDL will attend trucking school. Many companies offer free CDL training with a requirement that you be under their employ for a certain amount of time. Private truck driving schools will require you to pay tuition, but you will then be free to drive for any company immediately.

    Additionally, most private schools will offer job placement programs for new graduates, in addition to any pre-hire letters that the driver has acquired.

  • Written CDL Knowledge Exam:

    Drivers will be required to pass a written CDL exam. The material and questions will generally be the same in any state, but may have slight variations. It is important that you study the CDL manual from your home state, in addition to other resources. You can find your manual on our State CDL Manuals Free Downloads page.

  • CDL Skills Test:

    The physical driving test, inside an actual truck. Just like any other driving test, but on a much bigger scale.

  • DOT Physical:

    Not only will you be given regular DOT physicals and drug tests as a CDL driver, you will also be required to undergo drug and alcohol testing and a physical examination before attending truck driving school.

Qualifications For CDL Drivers:

See Also: CDL Qualifications For New Drivers.

In order to be eligible to drive commercial motor vehicles (CMV), you will have to meet certain requirements:

  • CDL Age Requirements:

    In most states, the minimum age for getting your CDL is 18, but Federal FMCSA regulations set it at 21 for interstate driving.

  • Driver's License:

    Generally, most truck driving schools, companies and states will require having a regular driver's license for at least one year prior to getting a CDL.

  • Legal Issues:

    While the FMCSA does not specifically set guidelines for drivers with a troubling legal history, CDL drivers should expect to encounter some difficulty finding a driving job with a criminal past, especially if it is recent, involves drugs, alcohol, or DUI , or is especially intolerable.

  • Medical and Physical Requirements:

    CDL drivers are required to pass a physical exam in order to drive a commercial vehicle. Drivers may be disqualified for various conditions, including high blood pressure and vision and hearing issues. Drivers will also be required to pass a DOT drug screen.

  • Education:

    Almost all truck driving schools and companies will require a driver to have a high school diploma, at minimum.

  • English Language Requirement:

    Drivers will need to be able to understand and communicate in the English language.

See Also: Qualifications For CDL Drivers

See Also: DOT Physical Exam.

Steps For Getting Your CDL:

After deciding to become a truck driver, and making sure that you can qualify, these are the next steps for getting your CDL:

  • Choose Your Method Of CDL Training:

    See also: Choosing A Truck Driving School

    Drivers have essentially 3 options for getting their CDL:

    • Private Truck Driving School:

      Students will need to pay tuition on their own. Loans or grants may be available depending on the students current situation. Students will also be free to choose any employer after graduation.

      Many community colleges offer CDL training programs, as well.

      It is important for students to verify that the school they choose meets the standards required of carriers for them to get hired.

      Most carriers will require at least 160 hours of driver training at a professional truck driving school.

      See Also: WIOA - Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act

      • Getting Pre-hire Letters:

        Drivers who intend to go to a private school for their CDL are advised to get pre-hire letters from as many trucking companies as they can.

        A pre-hire letter is a way for a company to tell a driver "yes, you appear to meet our minimum requirements for hire, would you like to attend orientation?". It is obviously dependent on the driver actually graduating and getting their CDL.

        Many truck driving companies actually require pre-hire letters as a condition of enrollment.

        See Also: CDL Pre-Hire Letters

    • Company-Sponsored Training:

      Many of the larger companies operate their own truck driver training schools, either at their own facilities, or through a private school.

      Instead of paying tuition, students will, after graduating with their CDL, be obligated to drive for the company for a specific period of time, generally anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

      Leaving the company before fulfilling the contract and tuition repayment requirements will normally leave the driver liable for the balance of the contract, and may be a black mark on their record when they try to find another position.

    • Getting Your CDL On Your Own:

      While possible, generally not considered a very good idea or option. Most trucking companies will not hire drivers who have not been trained by a school that meets their requirements, and many insurance companies actually require formal training by a professional. The exception would be for owner-operators working for themselves, but TruckingTruth generally advises against drivers, especially new drivers, getting into an ownership position.

      As the driving skills test will need to be done in an actual truck, a driver getting a CDL on his or her own would need access to one, either through someone they know or a rental. Either way, generally not feasible for most CDL students.

  • Getting Your CDL Learner's Permit:

    Drivers will need to check with whichever truck driving school or company they have chosen to find out if they should get their CDL permit before reporting for training.

    Some states require drivers to pass a physical exam, including hearing and vision tests, before applying for their CDL learner's permit. It is always important to check with the DMV or Licensing Bureau in your home state for specifics of CDL requirements.

    Getting a learner's permit will require passing a written knowledge test.

    See Also: State CDL Manuals Download.

  • Note: The written test will only need to be taken once, except for endorsements. There are not seperate tests for permit and license.

  • Written CDL Exam:

    Drivers will be required to pass a written knowledge exam as part of the CDL testing process. The test will cover all aspects of driving a commercial vehicle, including pre-trip inspections, cargo security, weight and balance, and emergency procedures.

    The CDL knowledge test will be based on the particular CDL manual for that state, but will always include at least the General Knowledge, Air Brakes, & Combination Vehicle sections. It is important that drivers always check their individual state CDL regulations.

    See Also: State CDL Manuals Download.

    Drivers will also take exams for whatever additional CDL endorsements they choose to get. As always, TruckingTruth recommends getting all available endorsements to maximize future opportunities.

    Generally, there will be around 30 to 50 questions on a typical CDL General Knowledge Test, depending on what state the driver is testing in. The questions for specific CDL endorsements will be in addition to that. Regardless of the state, it is generally accepted that completing TruckingTruth's High Road Training Program will thoroughly prepare you for your CDL exam.

    See Also: High Road Training Program

    See Also: CDL Endorsements and Restrictions

  • CDL Driving Skills Road Test:

    Driving skills will be tested in an actual tractor trailer.

    The test will consist of 3 main components:

    • Pre-trip Inspection:

      Drivers will be required to demonstrate that they are able to properly check the road-worthiness of the vehicle they will be driving

    • Road Test:

      Basic driving skills test on the road.

    • Backing Test:

      Will test driver's ability to back a tractor trailer up safely and properly. Note that requirements for this part of the CDL skills test may vary from state-to-state.

    Each state will generally have their own requirements for the road test portion, but it will generally include a combination of left-right turns, busy streets, various intersections, railroad crossings, expressways, upgrades, downgrades, and overpasses.

    It is generally accepted that running a red light or running into something, or even smaller events like hitting a curb, not checking the mirrors, or rolling backwards from a stop are mistakes that will result in automatic failure.

    While failing the CDL road test still allows you to take it again, failing it multiple times may require drivers to wait a certain period of time before taking it again, depending on the state.

Pre-trip Inspection:

A pre-trip inspection is a thorough inspection of the truck completed before driving for the first time each day.

Federal and state laws require that drivers inspect their vehicles. Federal and state inspectors also may inspect your vehicles. If they judge a vehicle to be unsafe, they will put it “out of service” until it is repaired.


Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

A CDL is required to drive any of the following vehicles:

  • Any combination of vehicles with a gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, providing the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any vehicle, regardless of size, designed to transport 16 or more persons, including the driver.
  • Any vehicle required by federal regulations to be placarded while transporting hazardous materials.


Over The Road

OTR driving normally means you'll be hauling freight to various customers throughout your company's hauling region. It often entails being gone from home for two to three weeks at a time.

Over The Road:

Over The Road

OTR driving normally means you'll be hauling freight to various customers throughout your company's hauling region. It often entails being gone from home for two to three weeks at a time.

Combination Vehicle:

A vehicle with two separate parts - the power unit (tractor) and the trailer. Tractor-trailers are considered combination vehicles.


WIOA - Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act (aka WIA)

Formerly known as the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the WIOA was established in 1998 to prepare youth, adults and dislocated workers for entry and reentry into the workforce. WIOA training funds are designed to serve laid-off individuals, older youth and adults who are in need of training to enter or reenter the labor market. A lot of truck drivers get funding for their CDL training through WIOA.

Commercial Motor Vehicle:

A commercial motor vehicle is any vehicle used in commerce to transport passengers or property with either:

  • A gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more
  • A gross combination weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more which includes a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds
  • CSA:

    Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA)

    The CSA is a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) initiative to improve large truck and bus safety and ultimately reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities that are related to commercial motor vehicle


    Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

    The FMCSA was established within the Department of Transportation on January 1, 2000. Their primary mission is to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries.

    What Does The FMCSA Do?

    • Commercial Drivers' Licenses
    • Data and Analysis
    • Regulatory Compliance and Enforcement
    • Research and Technology
    • Safety Assistance
    • Support and Information Sharing


    Department Of Transportation

    A department of the federal executive branch responsible for the national highways and for railroad and airline safety. It also manages Amtrak, the national railroad system, and the Coast Guard.

    State and Federal DOT Officers are responsible for commercial vehicle enforcement. "The truck police" you could call them.


    Commercial Motor Vehicle

    A CMV is a vehicle that is used as part of a business, is involved in interstate commerce, and may fit any of these descriptions:

    • Weighs 10,001 pounds or more
    • Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more
    • Is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver) not for compensation
    • Is designed or used to transport 9 or more passengers (including the driver) for compensation
    • Is transporting hazardous materials in a quantity requiring placards


    Commercial trade, business, movement of goods or money, or transportation from one state to another, regulated by the Federal Department Of Transportation (DOT).


    Dispatcher, Fleet Manager, Driver Manager

    The primary person a driver communicates with at his/her company. A dispatcher can play many roles, depending on the company's structure. Dispatchers may assign freight, file requests for home time, relay messages between the driver and management, inform customer service of any delays, change appointment times, and report information to the load planners.


    Dispatcher, Fleet Manager, Driver Manager

    The primary person a driver communicates with at his/her company. A dispatcher can play many roles, depending on the company's structure. Dispatchers may assign freight, file requests for home time, relay messages between the driver and management, inform customer service of any delays, change appointment times, and report information to the load planners.


    Department of Motor Vehicles, Bureau of Motor Vehicles

    The state agency that handles everything related to your driver's licences, including testing, issuance, transfers, and revocation.


    What Exactly Is A Pre-Hire Letter?

    Pre-hire letters are acceptance letters from trucking companies to students, or even potential students, to verify placement. The trucking companies are saying in writing that the student, or potential student, appears to meet the company's minimum hiring requirements and is welcome to attend their orientation at the company’s expense once he or she graduates from truck driving school and has their CDL in hand.

    We have an excellent article that will help you Understand The Pre-Hire Process.

    A Pre-Hire Letter Is Not A Guarantee Of Employment

    The people that receive a pre-hire letter are people who meet the company's minimum hiring requirements, but it is not an employment contract. It is an invitation to orientation, and the orientation itself is a prerequisite to employment.

    During the orientation you will get a physical, drug screen, and background check done. These and other qualifications must be met before someone in orientation is officially hired.

    Company-sponsored Training:

    A Company-Sponsored Training Program is a school that is owned and operated by a trucking company.

    The schooling often requires little or no money up front. Instead of paying up-front tuition you will sign an agreement to work for the company for a specified amount of time after graduation, usually around a year, at a slightly lower rate of pay in order to pay for the training.

    If you choose to quit working for the company before your year is up, they will normally require you to pay back a prorated amount of money for the schooling. The amount you pay back will be comparable to what you would have paid if you went to an independently owned school.

    Company-sponsored training can be an excellent way to get your career underway if you can't afford the tuition up front for private schooling.


    Hours Of Service

    HOS refers to the logbook hours of service regulations.


    Driving Under the Influence


    When a violation by either a driver or company is confirmed, an out-of-service order removes either the driver or the vehicle from the roadway until the violation is corrected.

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