Requirements to get Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) and Commercial Learner’s Permits (CLP)

How old do I have to be to qualify for a CDL?

In most states, the minimum age to qualify for a CDL is 21. Some states allow drivers aged 18 – 20 to obtain a CDL allowing them to drive only within the state issuing the CDL. Federal requirements, however, prohibit anyone under age 21 from engaging in “interstate commerce,” meaning driving a commercial motor vehicle outside the CDL-issuing state’s boundaries.

The nationwide truck driver shortage has led the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider options that might lower the interstate age requirement. One such options is allowing drivers trained in the military to drive interstate routes prior to age 21. Pilot studies are also conducted to research if a trained driver younger than 21 can operate a commercial motor vehicle with the same level of safety as a similarly trained individual at least 21 years old.

Check with the CDL-issuing agency within your state of domicile for more information on age restrictions.

Do I need experience to qualify for a CDL?

Maybe.

Earning a CDL does not necessarily require experience beyond that needed to train and pass your written and skills tests.

Some carriers operate in-house training programs allowing applicants to be hired based on their potential for success as a truck driver then trained by the carrier under FMCSA regulations and any additional standards the carriers may set. These programs will not only allow you to learn information and skills you’ll need to obtain your CDL, but in some cases you’ll be paid during your training period.

Some carriers may require you to have a certain amount of experience as a driver before they will hire you. It is not uncommon for drivers to obtain their CDL after completing a carrier’s training program then drive for the carrier for the minimum amount of time or number of miles required under the training agreement. After the obligation to the original carrier is fulfilled, these drivers will often look elsewhere for jobs.

Other candidates for truck driving jobs will follow a route requiring them to obtain a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP), train under the observation of a qualified CDL holder, and test for the CDL when they feel prepared and in accordance with state regulations.

How long does it take to obtain a CDL?

The real question is, “How long does it take to obtain a CDL assuming I am comfortable behind the wheel and feed prepared to drive a commercial motor vehicle on public highways.” The answer varies dependent on the individual.

No specific time frame exists for you to earn your CDL. In general, if you attend a driver training program, the minimum time for completion is 4 – 7 weeks, although some programs may require up to 6 months.

It should be understood that attending a driver training program is not* a prerequisite to earning a CDL. Passing the tests required to obtain a CLP then learning what is necessary to pass the written and skills tests while training with a valid CDL holder, allows you complete the process in as few as 14 days (the minimum time being a state issuing a CLP and allowing testing for a CDL).

The actual time between receiving your CLP and testing for a CDL depends on you, your confidence in passing the required tests, and your demonstrated ability to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle on public highways.

After you obtain your CDL, you may not feel comfortable behind the wheel of a commercial motor vehicle. If not, you cannot operate it safely. Before driving solo or hauling a loaded trailer, gain more experience and confidence in your driving ability.

*While training programs and “driver academies” may pour thousands of dollars into marketing their training services and offer guarantees that you’ll pass your tests on your first attempt, such marketing ploys are at the discretion of the program and carry no validity with the FMCSA or state agencies responsible for issuing CDLs.

How much does it cost to get my CDL?

Depending on the route you choose, fulfilling all requirements for a CDL could cost less than a couple of hundred dollars or as much as thousands of dollars. Cost of study materials, paid training programs, housing and meals during training, testing fees, and CDL fees should all be considered when choosing your approach to obtaining your CDL.

Am I required to hold a CLP prior to testing for a CDL?

FMCSA regulations state that a CLP must be acquired within the applicant’s state of “domicile” and held for a minimum of 14 days prior to the applicant becoming eligible for CDL testing. But there is an exception.

A CLP is only needed if you are upgrading to a CDL level that requires a skills test (as opposed to a written test). For example, if you wish to obtain a Class C CDL for the purpose of driving a church bus carrying 16 passengers (including you, the driver), you are only required to obtain a CLP if your state administers a skills test for the Class C level of licensing.

What is required to get a CLP?

To gain a CLP, a candidate must meet the following criteria:

  1. At least 18 years old
  2. Obtain training required at the state level in which the CLP will be issued
  3. Pass a general knowledge written test.
  4. Apply through his/her state of “domicile*”
  5. Receive a CLP issued only by the state of domicile.

FMCSA regulations define “domicile” as the “that state where a person has his/her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which he/she has the intention of returning whenever he/she is absent.”

The consideration of the state of domicile, means someone planning to gain a CLP must be aware of additional regulations:

  1. A student training for a CLP outside the state of domicile cannot obtain a CLP from the state in which the training occurred.
  2. The general knowledge test a CLP candidate must pass can be conducted in the state where training occurred. Results of out-of-state testing will be made available to the CLP-Issuing authority within the candidate’s state of domicile.
  3. Prior to issuing a CLP, a state must verify the name, date of birth, and social security number of the applicant with the information on file with the Social Security Administration. If the data provided does not match what is on file, a state may not issue a CLP.
  4. FMCSA standards do not prohibit a “non-domiciled” person in the United States (i.e., a foreign national) from obtaining a CLP provided the candidate is legally present in the U.S. and/or domiciled in a jurisdiction that is prohibited from issuing CLPs.
  5. The decision of issuing a CLP to a non-domiciled person is at the state issuing agency’s discretion in accordance with state law.

Do Federal and State CDL requirements for obtaining your CDL differ?

Sometimes.

The FMCSA sets regulations that all states follow before issuing a CDL. Qualifications, training, and testing is based on federal regulations regardless of the Class of CDL a driver needs.

Issuing CDLs is a state responsibility. States require the CDL candidates fulfill Federal regulations and any additional regulations issued by the state. States can enact laws that are more stringent than FMCSA regulations, but they cannot issue CDLs to candidates who do not meet, at a minimum, those issued by the FMCSA.

What does a CLP allow me to do?

A valid CLP allows the holder to operate a commercial motor vehicle in any state provided he/she is operating within FMCSA requirements. These requirements include:

  1. A permit holder between 18 and 21 years old, can only operate a commercial motor vehicle within the state of domicile where the permit is issued.
  2. A permit holder at aged 21 or over may operate in any state, meaning they may train while hauling under “interstate commerce” regulations.
  3. In all cases, while training, a CLP holder must be accompanied by a driver holding a valid CDL endorsement(s) necessary to operate the commercial motor vehicle being driven.
  4. The CDL Holder must at all times be physically present in the front seat of the vehicle next to the CLP holder or, in the case of a passenger vehicle, directly behind or in the first row behind the driver.
  5. The CDL driver training the CLP holder must have the CLP holder under observation and direct supervision at all times.

How long is a CLP valid?

A CLP is valid for 180 days from the date of issuance. Depending on the issuing state’s regulations, a 180-day extension may be approved without retesting.

Is there a waiting period between obtaining a CLP and testing for a CDL?

Yes. You must hold your CLP for a minimum of 14 days before CDL testing.

Can I obtain endorsements while holding my CLP?

Yes.

FMCSA regulations allow CLP holders to gain the following endorsements under specific conditions:

  1. 1. School Bus (S)
  2. 2. Tanker (N)
  3. 3. Passenger (P)

A “no passenger” restriction is be placed on all CLP holders with P and S endorsements. In other words, while a CLP holder may train to drive a School Bus or Passenger Vehicle for which a CDL is required, no passenger other than the CDL holder accompanying and observing the CLP holder is allowed to be transported with the CLP holder operates the vehicle.

A CLP holder may also be issued an (N) endorsement, meaning he/she may train while driving a tanker vehicle only if the tank is empty and carries no hazardous materials.

FMCSA regulations specifically prohibit CLP holders from (T) endorsements, those required for CDL holders hauling double or triples. After a CLP holder receives a CDL, the (T) endorsement may be obtained provided the state of domicile offers such an endorsement. In all cases, the CDL holder must have valid endorsements for the type of vehicle being operated.

What type of training is required to test for a CDL?

An important point to remember is that the FMCSA has issued no requirements that you attend a truck driving training program to qualify for a CDL. Training, however, will help you learn the information and skills needed to pass your tests. But you can learn the information to pass written testing and the driver skills to pass live testing through different channels. Understanding the process involved in obtaining your CDL may provide an idea of type of training best suited for you.

The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMSCA) is the arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation overseeing guidelines for testing to obtain a CDL. Steps included in the FMCSA process to obtain a CDL are as follows:

  1. Test and obtain a commercial learner’s permit (CLP). While requirements to qualify for CLP testing may vary by state, all must meet FMCSA regulations.
  2. Present your current driver’s license (normally a Class D license allowing for operation of passenger cars.
  3. Provide a copy of your 10-year driver history, a report including any moving violations, at-fault accidents, and other information depending on the state in which you live. Most likely, the testing location has this information in its electronic system, but you should check with an official at the location to be sure. If you do not have a driving history of 10 years (i.e., you are 21 years-old and have only been driving since you were 16), your full driving record will be required.

Where can I find formal training programs for a CDL and/or CLP?

To gain training needed to qualify for a CLP and/or CDL, you have many options. You can follow the route outlined here, or you can consider several more formal training options.

  1. High Schools
    Some high schools throughout the country have recently offered preliminary truck driver training through vocational education programs. While these programs do not offer live driver training, some use high-tech virtual reality simulators that seasoned drivers say are as close as one can get to driving on a public highway. Using these simulators, students learn repetitive motion skills and develop motor memory that will serve them well when they enter live training and earn their CLPs or CDLs.
  2. Vocational Schools/Community Colleges
    Many community and vocational colleges offer Truck Driver training programs. The nature of these programs may vary from non-credit courses specifically focused on gaining the information and skills needed to earn a CDL to others that may require a student to earn a diploma or certificate typically involving for-credit courses that are more extensive than non-credit training classes. If attending an accredited community college, you may earn an Associate Degree along with your CDL training. Degreed programs typically require general education courses such as Composition and College Algebra as well as courses truck drivers may find useful in the field like accounting, basic diesel engine maintenance, communications, and others.
  3. Private Truck Driving Schools
    Private, for-profit truck driving schools or academies are situated strategically throughout the country so that they may market their programs to as many potential students as possible. These programs might involve private training with as little as one instructor and truck, or they might employ numerous trainers and own a full fleet of trucks. Instruction may be online, live, or a combination of both. The cost of these programs is typically higher than other training sources, but they are worth checking out. A private truck driving school might be just what you are looking for!
  4. Military
    The military offers many opportunities for those hoping to become truck drivers while serving their country. Trucks have played vital roles in U.S. military action during the 20th and 21st centuries, and all branches of the service need many truck drivers whether overseas or within the United States. Likewise, as the military trains soldiers as young as 18 to drive trucks with many leaving the service before they turn 21, the FMCSA is conducting pilot programs to determine if military drivers should be able to engage in interstate commerce prior to turning 21 years old, the normal age required for civilian drivers.
  5. Freight Carriers
    Numerous freight carriers operate their own driving academies. Under this training arrangement, future company drivers normally learn the skills and gain the experience needed to earn their CDLs while also learning about the company for which they will be driving, as well as its policies and procedures, and its corporate culture.

Carrier training programs often provide paid training in return for a commitment to work for the carrier for a given period of time or number of miles.

Consider the various carrier requirements carefully if considering training and eventually committing to drive one. Make sure expectations of you, the student-employee, are in writing. The carrier should also provide a copy of its responsibilities. Thoroughly read all documents as they will likely be in the form of a contract you and the carrier representative will sign. If you drop out or do not fulfill you agreed to commitment after training, you may be required to reimburse the carrier for training costs.

If you are looking for a route that includes training and a potential job in one package, a carrier offering its own driving school may be a good option to consider!

To hear the differences between getting a CDL at a trucking school versus a company sponsored program, watch this video.

What other training resources should I consider when getting a CDL?

Truck driving is among the most common occupations and the industry employees millions of drivers. The sheer quantity of people interested in working as truck drivers offers developer of training resources lucrative opportunities. While a private individual is unlikely to purchase a high-tech simulator to train for a CDL, study manuals and materials, practice test (both in books and online), directories of programs, and even access to scholarships to help pay for training are all resources CDL candidates seek.

Depending on the type of training program you choose, assistance with tuition, fees, and other associated costs is widely available.

If you attend an accredited vocational school or community college, you’ll likely be eligible for federal financial aid including grants and student loans. The first step to qualifying for federal aid is to fill out the FAFSA application. This single application is the key to opening the door to hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government offers students every year. You can find the form online at www.fafsa.ed.gov or your training program likely can provide you a form and help you with any questions. Even if you don’t qualify for federal student assistance, the same application allows you to access other forms of financial aid.

Scholarships, either provided through your school or training program or by private individuals, are also available. Stakeholders, including carriers, in the trucking industry may also offer scholarships.

Some schools, especially those offering relatively short training programs for a set fee, will provide payment options. These may include no interest periodic payments during the program, and you may even find some that will defer payments until you have secured a truck driving job.

Finally, remember that many carriers offer training to chosen applicants. They will often pay for your training and testing through the carrier’s training program, allow you to use the carrier’s vehicles during training and testing, and have a job waiting for you when you successfully obtain your CDL.

Study Materials
Your first stop for study materials should be your state office responsible for issuing CDLs. These materials will not only include all necessary FAFSA information, but if the state requires additional knowledge, the material will likely be included. Frequently, you can find these materials online in the form of pdf documents, or you can pick one up from a testing location at little or no cost.

In addition to state study materials, you’ll find a wealth of books, videos, and exercises in your college bookstore, online, and through private retailers. Be selective in those you choose. There are a tremendous number of options out there, and you can spend a lot of money in your effort to pass your CDL tests. In some cases, specialized materials like practice tests will be useful. But the key to passing your written exam is knowing the information in the state-issued study manual. As far as the skills exam is concerned, you’ll gain what you need to pass through practice. If you have particular problems with aspects of skills, free online videos address various topics may also be of help.

Is it possible to get a CDL with a bad driving record?

To hear about obtaining a CDL with a bad driving record, watch this video.

Is there a step-by-step process for obtaining a CDL?

Based on FMCSA regulations, the following is the general process a CDL candidate will follow to qualify for a CDL. Various states may have regulations that add steps to the process outlined.

  1. Decide which Class of CDL is needed for the vehicle or truck/trailer combination you need to drive.
  2. Determine if you’re eligible for a CDL.
  3. Obtain required medical certification.
  4. Gather verification documents including (for most states)
    a. Proof age and identity (driver’s license, birth certificate, etc.)
    b. Social Security Card
    c. Proof of residency (utility bill, mortgage statement, etc.)
    d. Proof of acceptable driving history (certification of holding one unsuspended driver’s license)
  5. Study the CDL handbook or training guide (available through your state’s CDL-issuing agency.
    a. Study thoroughly to prepare for testing
    b. Use online practice tests
  6. Complete application for a CLP at state-agency office or online
    a. Proof of identification, residency, medical qualifications, and acceptable driving record
    b. Class of commercial motor vehicle you will drive and Class of license desired
  7. Submit CLP application
    a. Pay fees
    b. Pass written test
  8. Select CDL training program/method of training
  9. Practice driving vehicle you wish to drive after obtaining your CDL.
    a. Vehicle inspection
    b. Basic controls
    c. Road test
  10. Schedule appointment for CDL driving skills test
    a. Contact state CDL-issuing office
    b. Arrive with the commercial motor vehicle you plan to drive
    c. Pay fees
  11. Receive your CDL
  12. Maintain and excellent driving record and record of safety

To see additional information on the steps you need to take to get your CDL, watch this video.