How to Get a CDL – Requirements, Manual & Driving Tests

You want to know how to get a CDL license? You just sign up for trucking school and get your CDL. It’s that simple, right? Unfortunately, no. You must meet government cdl requirements every step of the way. The Commercial Drivers License was created by the federal government to ensure that large or potentially dangerous commercial vehicles are driven by qualified, safe drivers. So getting your CDL is not as simple as having a truck driving school tell you that you did a good job, giving you a smiley face sticker and sending you on your way. You must check off every single government’s CDL requirements to get your license. In fact, government requirements are a daily consideration throughout your career as a trucker.

Truck driver training academies are usually helpful on this journey. But prospective truckers can get stuck in this maze of government requirements. Sometimes it holds them up for just a couple of days or a couple of weeks. A single issue could mean a delay of weeks or months in getting your license. In a worst case scenario, failure to meet government CDL requirements could mean an end to your trucking career before it ever began. We don’t want this to happen to you.

Many trucking students won’t have any trouble making their way through the maze of government regulations to get their CDL. Others are not so lucky. Many requirements = many ways to get tripped up. Fortunately, if you understand the requirements it is often possible to spot a requirement that might be a problem for you. Ask questions and take corrective action early and you will often be able to avoid a delay in getting your CDL. In the unfortunate case that something in your background is going to flat-out prevent you from getting a CDL, it is best to realize this before your quit your old job and sign up for trucking school.

There are many government requirements to reckon with. Most of this information is available on government websites or in the CDL handbook – but it is often hard to find, full of jargon, and written by lawyers in a manner that is only easy for lawyers to understand. Nevertheless, you need to understand all of the CDL requirements. In this chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, we will dive into each one in the order in which most trucking students will encounter them on their road to a CDL. We will break each requirement down until it’s easy to understand exactly how to get a CDL license. With this knowledge, you’ll start truck driving school with more confidence and a better chance of success.

CDL Requirements and The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act (CMVSA) was signed into law in 1986 and went into effect in 1992. The CMVSA aims to prevent unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles. When you’re trying to figure out how to get a CDL license and you find yourself jumping through all kinds of hoops – from getting a drug test to performing a 100-point CDL Pre-Trip Inspection checklist- you can thank or curse this federal law.

Before the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act went into effect, each state had its own standards for drivers of tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles. Sometimes there were holes in these state standards – some drivers ended up behind the wheel of a vehicle that they weren’t really qualified to drive. Today, states still issue Commercial Drivers Licenses, but they must meet the minimum requirements established by the federal standards. The result is that CDL requirements vary little from state to state. Annoying as these requirements sometimes are, it is hard to argue with the fact that the CMVSA has saved lives and made our highways safer.

How to Get Your Commercial Learners Permit (CLP)

The first big milestone on your journey to get a CDL is obtaining a Commercial Learners Permit, also know as a CLP. This is the truck driver version of temps. The DMV will require some information in order to issue a Commercial Learners Permit. Requirements vary slightly from state to state. It is a good idea to call your DMV ahead of time and ask a lot of questions about how to get a CDL and what documents you need . Expect your DMV to require the following:

  1. Proof that you are 21 years of age. You must be 21 to drive a commercial motor vehicle across state lines, but some states will still issue a CDL that can only be used within that state’s borders. If you’re under 21, do some research and make sure you’ll be able to find a job.
  2. Your current non-commercial drivers license. The DMV will also want you to list all states in which you’ve held a drivers license in the previous 10 years. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires states to check your record in both the National Driver Registry (NDR) as well as the Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS), a national database of commercial drivers. You cannot hold a CDL in more than 1 state at the same time. The DMV also will probably check that you’ve had your regular drivers license for 1 year or longer. If you obtained your regular drivers license within the last 12 months, you may have to wait to get your CDL.
  3. Proof of your full legal name, citizenship and Social Security Number. The DMV will probably want to see your birth certificate and/or Social Security card, etc..
  4. Proof of your residential address (bank statements, utility bills, paystubs, etc.). Sometimes 2 different documents are required. Many times the DMV is very particular about the documents they accept. For example, they won’t accept a utility bill that is more than 3 months old or they don’t consider a cell phone bill to be a utility bill. If they ask for 2 proofs of residence, see if you can bring in 3 or 4 so you don’t have to run home looking for additional documentation.

In addition to this documentation, you will need to show your DOT medical card and pass a few written tests based on the CDL manual. I’ll explain both of these requirements in detail in just a minute.

Once you do all this, they’ll take your picture and make you a CLP. Your commercial learners permit is good for 180 days and can be renewed once before you have to retake your written tests. Your CLP allows you to drive a commercial vehicle as long as you are supervised by somebody who has a valid CDL sufficient to drive the vehicle. You must wait 14 days after obtaining your commercial learners permit before you can take the CDL driving test.

When You Should Consider Disqualifying Yourself from a CDL

As you can now see, your local DMV is going to thoroughly investigate your information to make sure nothing disqualifies you from getting a CDL. If you have serious marks in your driving record or criminal history, or you lack a high school education, you may be able to get a CDL only to find that you can’t get a job. If this is true, it’s best to pull the plug on your CDL aspirations before you waste a lot of time and money. The following may not disqualify you from getting a CDL, but make it impossible to get a job.

  1. Lack of a High School diploma or GED
  2. A felony conviction.
  3. A drug-related conviction.
  4. A Driving Under the Influence (DUI) conviction.
  5. Refusal to take a drug or alcohol test.
  6. Reckless driving charges.
  7. A large number of moving violations.
  8. Responsible for an accident that caused serious injuries or death.

With the exception of getting a GED, there isn’t much you can do to alter these disqualifiers. If you have any of these on your records, especially if it was in the last 5 or 10 years, you may have trouble finding a job after you get your CDL. If this is you, but you really want to pursue a career in trucking, talk to employers and recruiters. Be honest and let them know that, whatever the issue was, it won’t happen again. Because most trucking companies really need drivers, they are sometimes willing to work with you even if you have a black spot somewhere on your record. See if you can obtain a pre-hire letter from the company. The pre-hire letter, while not a legally-binding guarantee, indicates the company’s intent to hire you once you obtain your CDL. If you can’t get a pre-hire letter, paying for CDL training may be a mistake.

DOT Physical Form and Medical Card

As I mentioned earlier, you’re also going to need a DOT medical card (also known as a medical examiner’s certificate) to get your Commercial Learners Permit (CLP). If you’ve never heard of this requirement, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires all commercial drivers, not just newbies, to get regular medical examinations to certify that they are healthy enought to safely operatate a commercial vehicle. DOT physical exams are valid for 24 months, so your DOT card will expire before your CDL does. As a commercial driver, you must have your DOT medical card with you at all times. If you ever have a DOT inspection or you get pulled over, you will be asked to present your DOT medical card.

Your truck driving school may help connect with a DOT approved Certified Medical Examiner. Before the physical examination begins, you will be asked to fill out a medical history form, where you will disclose any medical conditions, recent surgeries or illnesses, medications, etc.. Once the physical examination starts, the Certified Medical Examiner will check that you meet health requirements in the following areas:

  1. Pulse – must not be irregular.
  2. Blood Pressure – your blood pressure should be 139/89 or lower. If it is above this level, further tests will be performed to determine if you meet blood pressure requirements.
  3. Vision – the medical examiner will perform a basic visual test. Your eyesight must have an acuity of 20/40. Glasses or contacts are permitted. But if you use glasses or contacts, you will be required to use them whenever you are driving.
  4. Hearing – you must be able to hear a whispered voice with one ear covered up from a distance of 5 feet. In addition, you must have at least one ear that hears well (no more than 40 decibels of hearing loss). Hearing aids are permitted.
  5. Urinalysis – you will need to provide a urine sample, which will be checked for abnormalities in specific gravity, protein levels, blood levels and glucose level.

The Certified Medical Examiner will also look for signs of asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea, hernia, back problems and alcohol abuse among other things. If you’re considering going to truck driving school to get a CDL, it might be a good idea to get a routine physical with your family doctor. That way you can stay on top of any issues which might prevent you from getting your DOT medical card. People often know if they have issues with vision, hearing or blood pressure. If this is you and you want to become a trucker, you might want to consider going to get glasses, a hearing aid or blood pressure medication. Otherwise, you might not pass the DOT physical examination, which will prevent you from getting your CDL until the problem is corrected.

Drug Testing as Part of the DOT Physical Examination

To get your DOT medical card, you will have to give a urine sample to the examiners. Certified Medical Examiners are required to follow strict drug-testing protocol, so they will ask you to take everything out of your pockets before you go to the restroom to collect a urine sample. The medical professionals will test the temperature of the urine to make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with.

Your urine will be tested for the following:

  • Marijuana.
  • Cocaine.
  • Amphetamines.
  • Opiates.
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

A positive test for any of the above will prevent you from getting a DOT medical card. As a trucker, you are likely to face frequent drug testing when you get a new job in addition to random drug testing conducted by your employer. If you have a drug abuse problem, trucking is not the career for you.

How to Get a CDL License – First You Must Pass the Written Tests

OK, so far you’ve learned that you need a Commercial Learners Permit (CLP) to practice driving a big rig or any commercial vehicle. And to get your CLP, you must give the DMV a fair amount of documentation. You must also pass a physical examination and receive your DOT medical card. In addition, you must pass a few written exams that demonstrate a basic understanding of commercial vehicles and how to operate them safely based on the CDL handbook. This is the first test you must pass on your way to earning a CDL.

At many truck driving schools, the first week is entirely classroom instruction focused on helping you pass your written tests. Typically at the end of the first week of trucking school, students will go to the DMV to take their written tests and get a CLP. This is where you don’t want to fall behind. You’re not going to be able to get behind the wheel of a semi truck and start learning how to drive it until you get your CLP.

At the truck driving school that I went to, about 75% of students did not pass all of their written tests on their first try. For some but not all of the these students, the fact that English was not their first language was a major factor. The students who didn’t pass their test on the first try were told to keep coming to school to study. They came in each day and studied the CDL handbook on their own in the lobby, occasionally heading to the DMV to retest. For some, it just took one more try to pass all the tests. Others were there for 2 or 3 more weeks studying, but not getting any driving time.

Don’t let this be you. Study and take practice tests before you start truck driving school. If you need to start making a paycheck as soon as possible from your first CDL job, make sure you’re ready to pass the written tests. Otherwise, you may end up tacking a week or two onto the time that you’re incomeless.

Which Parts of the CDL Handbook Should You Study?

Every state has its own state manual, but they’re all based on the the FMSCA federal CDL manual available here. The state manuals are all pretty much identical except for a couple of pages of state specific information at the beginning detailing things like what documentation to bring with you to the DMV and what fees you will have to pay. Let’s take a quick look at the different written exams and figure out which ones you will need to study for in the CDL Handbook.

First is the General Knowledge test. All prospective CDL drivers must pass the General Knowledge test in order to get a CLP. The General Knowledge exam will test you on things like controlling your vehicle, driving at night, what to do in the case of an emergency, dealing with aggressive drivers, railroad crossings and what to do in the case of an accident. To prepare for the General Knowledge test, study section 1 (Introduction), Section 2 (Driving Safely) and Section 3 (Transporting Cargo Safely).

The Air Brakes exam is required if you will be testing in and driving a vehicle with air brakes. If you’re going to truck driver training school and learning to drive an 18-wheeler, this is you. If you’re learning to drive a bus, a straight truck or other Class B vehicle, your vehicle may or may not have air brakes. Make sure to find out so you know whether or not to study Section 5 – Air Brakes of the CDL Manual and take the Air Brakes test. If you do need to study the Air Brakes section, you’ll learn about air brake system and parts, dual air brake systems, inspecting air brakes and using air brakes.

The Combination Vehicle test is only applicable if you will be driving a combination vehicle like an tractor-trailer. If you’ll be driving a straight truck or bus, you can skip Section 6 of the CDL Handbook – Combination Vehicles. If you’ll be driving a tractor-trailer, you’ll be learning about things like combination vehicle air brakes, coupling and uncoupling and inspecting combination vehicles.

If you’re going to be driving a bus of any kind, you’re also going to have to take the Passenger Transport endorsement test. Study Section 4 of the CDL Manual – Transporting Passengers Safely. If the bus you’ll be driving is a school bus, you also need to take the School Bus test. Study Section 10 of the CDL Manual, creatively named School Bus. To get Passenger and School Bus credentials, you will also need to perform a skills test. If you pass the Passenger Transport and/or School Bus knowledge and skills tests you’ll get “Passenger” and “School Bus” endorsements on your “School Bus License” CDL. Endorsements are optional add-ons to your CDL that allow you to drive specific specialized vehicles, although if you’re getting a CDL to drive a bus, these endorsements are not really optional.

There are three other endorsements that you can add on to your CDL. A Tanker endorsement allows you drive a vehicle with a tank for carrying liquids. A Doubles / Triples endorsement allows you to drive a vehicle with multiple trailers, an advanced and extremely difficult skill. A Hazmat endorsement allows you to transport hazardous materials. The Hazmat endorsement requires fingerprinting to be used in an FBI background check, all three of these endorsements can be had for the price of passing a written endorsement test – no skills test is required. If you’re planning to drive an eighteen-wheeler, I would recommend doing a little extra studying and getting these endorsements. Even if you don’t end up driving a vehicle that requires these endorsements, the extra endorsements can open doors in your trucking career and they look good to employers and insurance companies. For example, if you pass the tanker endorsement test, you can get jobs hauling milk or gas.

In general the knowledge tests are 20–50 questions long. The hazmat, doubles/triples and tanker endorsement tests are usually closer to 20. The questions will be multiple choice, typically with 4 answers to choose from. Usually 1 or 2 of the answers makes no sense at all, which helps you to narrow down the correct answer. The knowledge and endorsement tests aren’t too hatefully difficult, but you’re going to need to study. You need to get an 80% or better to pass.

Endorsement Code Descriptions

T – Double/Triple Endorsement (Knowledge test only)

P – Passenger Endorsement (Knowledge and Skills Tests)

N – Tanker Endorsement (Knowledge test only)

H – Hazmat Endorsement (Knowledge test only)

X – Combination of Tanker endorsement and Hazmat endorsement (Knowledge test only)

S – School Bus License Endorsement (Knowledge and Skills Tests)

Testing Day Part 1 – The CDL Pre-Trip Inspection Checklist

We’re going to fast foward a ways now. You’ve gotten your CLP. You’ve been in the truck getting experience for two or three weeks and now you’re ready to take the driving test to get your CDL. Testing Day has three main sections. First, you must demonstrate a CDL pre-trip inspection (aka vehicle inspection). All CDL drivers are required to perform a pre-trip inspection each day that they are on the road. For the CDL pre-trip inspection checklist, you need to detail about 100 (the exact number varies based on whether, for example, you count the lights as 1 point or several) different parts on the inside and outside of the truck and what you would look for to verify that they are safe and not in need of repair. Some states allow you to use a “training aid” to remember the items you need to inspect. This is the one part of CDL driving testing day that really relies on you to study.

Testing Day Part 2 – Basic Vehicle Control Skills Test (AKA Driving Maneuvers)

OK, you nailed the CDL pre-trip inspection – now it’s time for CDL driving test, starting with maneuvers. This is quite possibly the part of testing day that causes the most students to fail. Maneuvering and especially backing up an eighteen-trailer is not easy. Practice makes perfect so make the most of every chance you have to practice the maneuvers while in trucking school. In most states, the backing skills tests include: Straight line backing, Offset back/right, Offset back/left, Parallel park (driver side), Parallel park (conventional), and Alley dock (aka 90-degree). Some states also have Forward Serpentine, Reverse Serpentine, and Stop Line Tests. Generally, you won’t have to do all of these skills tests. The examiner will let you know which ones to do.

I’m not going to try to describe each of the maneuvers in detail here – you’ll be plenty familiar with them soon enough. By the time you’re ready to test, you’ll probably have favorite maneuvers as well as those you’d prefer to avoid. When I was in trucking school, everyone hoped to get an Offset and not an Alley Dock.

Testing Day Part 3 – On-the-Road CDL Driving Test

Alright, you’re on the home stretch. Time to take the big rig on the road and prove that you know what you’re doing. The next few minutes are going to lead to either a CDL or disappointment. Depending on the state, the testing facility and the examiner, the road portion of the CDL driving test might take 15 minutes or an hour. They are going to be watching everything from mirror checks to double clutching to staying in the lines.

When I went to truck driving school, the Texans at the school had a relatively easy and short (15 minutes) CDL driving test conducted by examiners who themselves were not CDL drivers. If you touched a line it was an automatic fail, although the testing route was all on wide and open streets. But they paid no attention to other things that would stand out like a sore thumb to a veteran trucker. My experience, as a New Mexican, was totally different. My road test lasted the better part of an hour and involved busy city streets and turns that would challenge a veteran. There were multiple times where crossing the center line was the only way to make a turn without running over a median or curb. The examiner understood this and even let me know – “hey, you’re going to need to cross over the line a bit here.”

Your truck driving school has seen hundreds of students pass and hundreds of students fail. They’ve heard feedback from students, and quite likely examiners, on where things went wrong. Oftentimes they can clue you in on what the examiners really look for in your city and state. Don’t get nervous. You’ve learned how to drive a commercial vehicle. Just focus and execute.

Conclusion: You Better Find a Good Truck Driving School

By now, you’re probably realizing that a lot goes into earning a CDL. From the written tests to the CDL pre-trip inspection checklist to the road test, there is a lot of knowledge that you need to learn and a lot of skills that you need to master. Having knowledgeable, dedicated people who know how to get people ready to pass all these tests is key. Find a good truck driving school. They are not all the same.

In the next chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, we’ll focus on how to tell the good schools from the bad. You’ll learn what to look for and what questions to ask. This may seem like overkill. But when you’re making a difficult turn in a semi truck on a busy city street, you will definitely want to be in good hands. Take the time to find a good truck driving school – you’ll be glad you did.