Now that you have decided you want to start a career in truck driving, the most important item you can obtain is your commercial driver’s license. Your CDL will be the first thing that any trucking employer asks for, and it is the only way you can drive a commercial truck, aka big rig. Once you have a CDL, you do not have to take the CDL exams again to keep it, just like with your regular driver’s license. However, if you get in trouble with the Department of Transportation for failing DOT drug tests, are involved in certain moving violations, or have at-fault accidents, you can lose your CDL. But before we worry about losing a CDL, let’s discuss the steps you need to take to get a CDL.
Trucking Schools for CDLs
Do you have to go to a trucking school to get a CDL? No. You are not required to attend or graduate trucking school before you can take the CDL exam. However, most new student truckers find that going to a truck driver training program helps with the process. During trucking school, you learn everything you need for the CDL exam. This exam is a two-part process, which includes a written exam that covers book knowledge of trucking. The other part of the exam is a road test. Just like when you had to ride with a DMV instructor to pass the driving test for your first license, you will have to drive a big rig with a DMV rep to get a CDL.
For the knowledge portion of the CDL exam, you have the option of using CDL study guides to study on your own. If you are a good reader and you were an OK student in grade school, then chances are you can learn the material needed to pass the CDL written exam. However, if you don’t focus well or have a difficult time learning from written text, then you may want to check out trucking schools. At a truck driving training program, you are given everything you need to pass the written portion of a CDL exam. The instructor will present the material to you in a variety of ways, rather than expecting you to read everything from a book. Most importantly, you will be able to ask the instructor questions to clarify topics you aren’t sure about, and you’ll get feedback from other students.
For the driving portion of the exam, you will need to spend time behind the wheel learning how to drive. If you are unable to practice driving a tractor-trailer on your own, then it is advisable that you go to truck driving school. As it is, most of us don’t have a big rig they can borrow or trucking friends who are willing to spend the time teaching you how to operate a truck. If you have no way to practice driving a big rig, you can get behind-the-wheel experience at a trucking school.
That being said, you don’t have to go to trucking school to get your CDL, and people pass the exam every day without attending training. However, if you feel you won’t be able to pass the exam on your own, consider a trucking school. A note: even if you graduate trucking school, it is still up to you to take and pass the CDL exam. Just because you graduate from the school doesn’t mean you are automatically given a CDL.
Difference Between a Learner’s Permit and CDL
When you start out as a trucker, you can get a commercial learner’s permit. Should you? Well, if you are planning on going to trucking school, you need to get a CLP. That is required before you can get behind the wheel. If you aren’t going to trucking school and hope to pass your CDL exam on your own, go straight forward with the CDL. Pending that you pass the exam, you will be ready to start a trucking job that same day. If you get a CLP, and you pass trucking school, you will still have to go back to your home state and take the CDL exam.
Some schools, including CR England and CRST, have received Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) exemptions for their student drivers. In this case, certain trucking companies allow you to bypass the CDL exam in your home state after you have completed trucking school. However, you must pass the written portion of the CDL exam under the direction of the hiring company. This exemption allows you to wait until you return to your home state for home time to get your CDL. In effect, you are a partially-licensed CDL driver with this exemption, but you are fully protected by the FMCSA in case you are pulled over for a DOT inspection.
Class A Versus Class B CDL
When you get a CDL, you have the option of a Class A or Class B. What’s the difference and which should you choose? A Class A driver can haul anything and everything, and to get over the road trucking jobs, this is the class you want to be in. A Class B driver is limited to hauls that weigh less than 26,000 pounds. This type of license is most common among regional truck drivers hauling parcels or driving moving trucks. If you want to be a long-haul trucker, you want to avoid the Class B and go with Class A all the way.
As for getting the Class A CDL, the difference is you are trained to haul more weight and any combination of vehicles. Also, you won’t find a trucking school that offers Class B training. They are all going to train you for a Class A CDL, period.
Where Do I Apply for a CDL
To get a CDL, you will need to visit a Department of Motor Vehicles in your home state. This is the same place you would go if you were getting a regular passenger car driver’s license. When you visit a DMV to take a CDL exam, you will most likely be required to schedule an appointment in advance. This is because you’ll need to have a qualified instructor there to ride along with you when taking the CDL road exam. Also, this type of exam is more time consuming and only so many test takers can be examined in a given day.
Cost for Getting a CDL
The actual cost for applying for a CDL is not expensive. It varies from state to state, but in general you can expect to pay about $40 to take the skills test. The written exam costs about $15, and a commercial learner’s permit is about $10. If you choose to get any CDL endorsements, that will cost about $5 for each endorsement, of which there are five basic ones. So, in total, if you get a CLP and a CDL with endorsements, you will be spending about $90. For a basic CDL, you will pay about $45.
How Long Does it Take to Get a CDL
To get a CDL, you will take two exams. Most likely you will be able to take these exams within the same day. Once you have passed your exams and provided the proper paperwork you will need, you will get your CDL the same day in most states.
Paperwork for Getting CDL
As for that paperwork, you will need several documents in order to apply for a CDL. Most importantly, you’ll have to have a DOT physical exam certificate. You will need to find a local certified medical examiner (CME) for this exam. This can be a physician, nurse practitioner, chiropractor, or specialist—as long as they are a CME. When you call to make an appointment, explain you need a DOT physical exam, and if they are qualified as a CME, they will know exactly what you are talking about. You will need the certificate showing you passed your DOT physical exam for the rest of your trucking career, so safeguard this document.
You will also need to provide a proof of residency for your home state, as well as your current driver’s license. You may also be required to bring your birth certificate and Social Security number. Call ahead to find out what you need to bring to save yourself time and aggravation at the DMV window.
Once you have your basic CDL, you may also want to get an endorsement, or five. The basic CDL endorsements available are:
- Air brake endorsement
- Hazardous materials endorsement, aka hazmat
- Tanker endorsement
- Doubles/triples endorsement
- School bus/passenger endorsement
As a Class A long-haul trucker, you want to get all the endorsements except the last one, the passenger/school bus endorsement. You won’t use that one, but the other endorsements will give you an advantage when searching for truck driving jobs with your newly minted CDL.