How to Get a CDL License
Driving a commercial vehicle is a big responsibility, requiring a great deal of skill, good judgment, and excellent road awareness. That’s why the process is a bit more involved than applying for your standard license… and it can be confusing for even the savviest driver.
Let’s dive into how to get a CDL license, including your eligibility and testing requirements, necessary forms, and steps to take from your earning your permit to your full CDL.
CDL Age & Eligibility Requirements
Just like for regular driver’s licenses, there are certain eligibility requirements you must meet in order to apply for your commercial driver’s license. Our CDL Requirements guide offers a full rundown of these standards, but here are the most important pieces of info to know.
Generally, you must:
- Be at least 18 years old for intra-state driving, or 21 years old for interstate driving or transporting HAZMAT cargo (check your state’s CDL manual for specific age requirements).
- Earn a commercial learner’s permit and hold it for at least 14 days.
- Complete an entry-level commercial driver training program (more details on this are on our CDL Requirements guide).
- Undergo a fingerprint background check, if you’re applying for a HAZMAT endorsement.
Required CDL Forms and Documents
You can save yourself a ton of time and frustration at your local DMV agency by having all of your paperwork in order before making your appointment. Be prepared to bring:
- A completed CDL/CLP application form. You can almost always download this from your state’s DMV agency website. Filling out your application before arrival can significantly expedite the process.
- A Medical Examiner’s Certificate
- A 10-year driving history, or your certified driving record.
- Many state DMV agencies can check this electronically, and most CDL applications provide space to include your 10-year driving history; if not, your driving record will suffice.
- A Medical Examiner’s Certificate (form MCSA 5875) completed by a certified medical examiner, along with a completed copy of your state’s medical self-certification form. Many states also allow you to self-certify online.
- Acceptable proof of your identity. These vary by state, but generally include your Social Security card; documents verifying your name, birth date, and citizenship or legal presence in the U.S.; and documents proving your state residency.
You’ll find even more information on CDL medical requirements and acceptable identity documents in our CDL Requirements guide.
Steps to Apply for a Commercial Driver’s License
- Complete your medical requirements.
As mentioned above, all drivers must first undergo a medical exam by a certified practitioner to assess whether they’re physically eligible to become a commercial driver. Your doctor will give you a physical exam and complete the Medical Examiner’s Certificate (form MCSA 5875) for you to submit to your DMV agency.
You’ll also need to self-certify the type of driving you intend to do with your CDL. You will either be an interstate (driving across state lines) or intra-state (remaining within state lines only) driver, and you will determine whether you have an excepted or non-excepted status. (Our CDL Requirements guide has a complete outline of what these categories mean and how to determine which one you fall into.)
Depending on your state’s system, you’ll either complete this self-certification online or by filling out a designated form to bring with you for your commercial learner’s permit appointment. Check your state’s DMV website for your options.
- Apply for a commercial learner’s permit (CLP)
Before officially hitting the roads solo in a commercial vehicle, applicants must first earn a learner’s permit to practice driving—just like any new first-time driver. This entails providing your required proofs of identity and residency, completing the medical self-certification process, as well as passing the required general knowledge exam plus tests for your specific CDL class and any endorsements that you may be applying for. (Helpful hint: you can increase your chances of acing your written exams by taking a few CDL practice tests before your appointment!)
Required tests you may need to take include:
- General knowledge test (all applicants)
- Combination vehicles test (all Class A applicants; Class B and C as applicable)
- Double/triple test (if you’ll be hauling double or triple trailers)
- Air brakes test (if your vehicle has air brakes of any kind)
- Passenger test (all bus driver applicants)
- School bus test (all school bus endorsement applicants)
- Tank vehicle test (if your vehicle carries liquid or gaseous materials)
- Hazardous materials (HAZMAT) test (all HAZMAT endorsement applicants)
If you’re a military veteran who has experience driving military vehicles, you may be eligible for a waiver allowing you to bypass the required knowledge tests. Waiver requirements vary by state, so check your CDL manual and state DMV agency website for specifics to your situation.
Once you’ve passed (or waived) your exams, you can use your CLP practice driving with a supervising CDL holder who has the same license class and endorsements (if applicable) that you’re applying for. You’ll have to hold your CLP for at least 14 days in most states before you’re eligible to apply for your full commercial driver’s license.
- Complete an entry-level driver training program
As of February 7, 2022, most new CDL applicants must successfully pass a CDL entry-level driver training program (ELDT) before taking a behind-the-wheel skills test and applying for a full CDL. Some applicants must actually complete this course before taking the written knowledge test and applying for a CLP.
If you are:
- Applying for a HAZMAT endorsement:
- You must complete your ELDT before taking the HAZMAT written knowledge exam at your learner’s permit application appointment.
- Applying for a Class A or Class B CDL:
- You must complete your ELDT after earning your CLP but before taking your road skills exams for your full CDL.
- Applying for a school bus (S) or passenger (P) endorsement:
- You must complete your ELDT after earning your CLP but before taking your specific passenger or school bus skills tests.
- Complete a HAZMAT background check, if applicable
If you’re applying for a HAZMAT endorsement, you’ll need to undergo a background check to ensure you’re qualified to transport hazardous materials. For applicants in most states, you’ll need to make an appointment to visit an authorized Transportation Security Administration (TSA) fingerprinting center. Bring either your valid passport or your driver’s license along with your birth certificate, as well as payment for the fingerprinting fee.
If you live in any of the following states, you should contact your DMV agency for specifics about how and where to apply for your background check:
- New York
- Take your CDL road skills tests
After practicing with your CLP and holding it for the required 14 days, you’ll be eligible to make an appointment for your CDL skills exam(s). You’ll be responsible for bringing your own commercial vehicle to your testing appointment, and it must be of the same class as the CDL for which you’re applying.
Typically, your skills exam consists of three parts:
- The pre-trip inspection, allows you to demonstrate your knowledge of the vehicle’s components and whether it’s safe to drive.
- Basic skills maneuvers, where you’ll drive the vehicle within a confined space to demonstrate your ability to operate the vehicle’s most basic controls.
- On-the-road driving, where you’ll head out into traffic to show your ability to operate safely within real-world conditions and your knowledge of traffic and safety laws.
You’ll also need to demonstrate skills related to your specific vehicle/CDL class and any endorsements you’re applying for. This could include demonstrating proficiency with air brakes, loading/unloading passengers, hauling liquid cargo, and more.
- Apply for your full CDL
After passing your skills exams, you’ll be able to complete your commercial driver's license application. This typically involves:
- Submitting another application form
- Exchanging your commercial learner’s permit
- Paying any additional fees to upgrade from a permit to a full commercial license
Bring your original proofs of identity and residency, in case the DMV agent needs to review them again. Your DOT medical card should now be on file, but it’s always wise to bring as many of your original documents as you can, just in case you’re asked to re-submit them.
At this point, give yourself a big round of applause—you’re now officially a commercial driver! Here’s to a long and rewarding career out on the open roads.