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How to Get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in 2021

How to Get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in 2021

by Zutobi · Updated Jan 05, 2021

What Is a Commercial Driver’s License?

A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is the driver’s license required to operate a commercial vehicle in the United States. Large, heavy, or placarded vehicles such as trucks, tractor-trailers, trailer-combinations, and flatbeds are all considered commercial motor vehicles (CMVs).

To drive each different CMV, you may be required to obtain one or several special endorsements. The different endorsements you can obtain for your CDL are; air brakes, combination vehicles, double or triple-trailers, hazmat (H), tanker vehicles, passenger vehicles (P), or school buses. To get an endorsement you need to pass a skills test with an examiner and, for most endorsements, a written multiple-choice test as well.

How to Get a CDL License in 16 Steps

These are the 16 steps you need to complete to get a commercial driver’s license.

  1. Pass the minimum age requirement. By federal law you must be at least 21 years old to drive interstate, but some states will issue an intrastate CDL to people between 18 – 20 years old.
  2. Submit your CDL application. The application must be submitted to your state’s DMV and will only be handled after you have paid the appropriate fees.
  3. Provide proof of residency. Valid documents must serve as proof of both state and US residency. For example; a copy of a utility bill.
  4. Provide proof of identity. Valid documents must be presented showing your identity. For example; US birth certificate, valid US passport or Permanent Resident Card.
  5. Provide proof of social security number. A valid document must be used as verification of your SSN. For example; a social security card or Medicare ID card.
  6. Submit proof of your medical status. To do this, you must submit a Medical Examiner’s Certificate Form (MCSA-5876) and a Medical Examination Report Form (MCSA-5875).
  7. Pass a CDL knowledge exam. This test will quiz you on general CDL requirements and knowledge and must be taken regardless of the license class you intend to take later.
  8. Pass a vision test. This test will ensure that you have an acceptable visual acuity.
  9. Get a Commercial Learner’s Permit. With the CLP, you can finally practice using real vehicles and with a supervising commercial driver in the passenger seat. The CLP is valid for 180 days.
  10. Practice, practice, practice. You likely have a lot of practicing to do. Don’t try to rush through practice as you’ll regret it later (a tip from experienced CDL drivers!).
  11. Prep the specific details for your license class. For example; you must pass the road test with a class A vehicle to get a class A license.
  12. Schedule your CDL road test. You can schedule an appointment at the earliest 14 days after receiving your CLP and at the latest 180 days.
  13. Pass the endorsements exams. Depending on what type of CDL you want, you need to apply for the recommended endorsements (hazmat, double-triple etc.) and pass the necessary exams.
  14. Pass the pre-trip inspection and CDL road test. You need to bring your own vehicle, so talk with your employer in good time so you can borrow a vehicle.
  15. Pay the necessary fees
  16. Receive your temporary CDL. The real CDL will be sent by mail within 30 days to your registered address (varies from state to state).

To ensure that you don’t run into any problems in the application process, it’s best to check your state’s DMV website for the latest information.

CDL Classifications

A CDL can have 3 license classifications; Class A, B, or C. Each classification can be used to drive specific types of heavy vehicles or to transport certain goods like, for example, hazardous materials. You should talk with your employer about which type of CDL classification you need.

To obtain a certain CDL classification, you first need to complete the general CDL requirements and then apply for the recommended class-specific endorsements, such as air-brakes, double-trailer, or tanker endorsements. Most of the requirements and endorsements are federally mandated and the same for all US states, but there may be slight variations from state to state. An example being that some US states will issue a CDL for intrastate driving if you are younger than 21 years old, while others do not. 

Read about How To Obtain A Class A, B, or C

How Long Does It Take to Get a Commercial Driver’s License?

Getting a CDL takes just 7 weeks on average from the date you pass your CDL permit test. How fast you can get your CDL will depend on a range of factors, such as the CDL license class, how often you attend driver-training, and your talent for handling a large vehicle. Your commercial driving instructor will let you know when you are ready for the road test.

As the CDL learner’s permit is valid for 180 days, you can think of 180 days as the upper limit it may take. For the lower limit, it’s not uncommon that dedicated students complete their driver training in just three or four weeks.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a CDL?

In general, the cost will land anywhere between $2,000 and $7,000 for the full driver-training program. Part of getting a CDL is to pass a CDL road test which tests your road skills. As it’s unlikely you happen to have a commercial vehicle of the right license class (A, B, C) at home, each practice session has to be done by attending CDL training classes which are expensive. 

In many cases, your employer will pay for the costs associated with getting the commercial driver’s license, or to add on specific endorsements. Check with your employer if that is the case as it will save you a hefty sum.

How to Avoid Spending More Money Than Necessary

Misinformation often leads to people spending hundreds of dollars extra on stuff that is either free (like the state’s CDL manual) or that, quite frankly, doesn’t help you become a better driver (like using a more expensive trucking school to practice). While it’s not uncommon for a CDL license to cost thousands of dollars in total when you count in the practice hours, you can easily save a few hundred if you follow our top tips below:

  • You can download your state’s CDL manual for free. Don’t pay extra for the manual.
  • You need to practice with a licensed driver for your road skills test, but the driver doesn’t have to be from a trucking school. You can often find less expensive alternatives.
  • Don’t spend money on stuff you don’t have to. Most states offer plenty of free resources on the state’s CDL licensing website.
  • Study smart so you pass on the first try. It can be expensive to fail a test as you’ll have to pay the fees again and it may lead to a loss of income for days or even weeks. 
  • CDL requirements may vary from state, so carefully look up what is required in your state.
  • Prepare for the CDL Permit Test and Endorsement Tests using our popular courses or test our Free CDL Practice Tests to get you started. All the courses and tests have been reviewed and updated in 2020.

We hope this article has helped you out! Best of luck on getting your Class A, B or C commercial driver’s license!

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