Commercial Drivers License (CDL)

A Commercial Driver's License (CDL) is a driver's license required in the U.S. to operate any type of vehicle that meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • Has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more and is used commercially
  • Transports quantities of hazardous materials that require warning placards under Department of Transportation regulations 
  • Is designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver
In simple terms, a CDL is necessary to drive large or hazardous material-carrying vehicles for commercial purposes. This is federally regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which sets the rules and requirements for the CDL.  However, the CDL itself is issued by individual states, and the specific rules and processes for obtaining a CDL can vary slightly from state to state.

Key takeaways

  • Definition: A CDL is a license required in the U.S to operate heavy, passenger or hazardous material carrying vehicles for commercial use.
  • Types: CDLs are classified into Classes A, B, and C, each allowing the operation of different types of vehicles. Additional endorsements broaden these capabilities.
  • Acquisition process: Obtaining a CDL involves meeting eligibility, passing a physical exam, acquiring a CLP, receiving training, and completing a skills test.
  • Routes to CDL: You can get a CDL via self-study, a CDL training school, or carrier-sponsored training, each offering unique advantages and drawbacks.
  • Pros and cons: A CDL can lead to more job opportunities and higher income but can be costly, demanding, and requires strict adherence to regulations.

How it works

Obtaining a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) in the U.S. is a regulated process overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), although the licenses themselves are issued by individual states. 

The first step in this process is ensuring eligibility, which generally includes being at least 21 years old, possessing a valid non-commercial driver's license, and passing a Department of Transportation (DOT) mandated physical examination. 

The next step is obtaining a Commercial Learner's Permit (CLP) by passing a series of written tests on commercial driving rules. Once the CLP is obtained, individuals typically enroll in a professional CDL training program for hands-on driving experience. 

After at least 14 days of holding the CLP, individuals are eligible to take the CDL skills test, which comprises a vehicle inspection test, a basic controls test, and a road test. Upon successful completion of the skills test, the CDL is issued, specifying the class of vehicle the holder is authorized to drive (A, B, or C) along with any earned endorsements. 

To maintain the CDL, drivers must uphold their physical fitness with regular examinations and adhere to strict regulations regarding traffic violations and substance use. However, the exact rules and requirements may vary slightly from state to state.

Self-study vs CDL school vs carrier sponsored training


Studying for your CDL on your own can be less expensive than enrolling in a training school, as you'll mainly need to cover the cost of materials and the testing fee. This option also offers flexibility, as you can study at your own pace and in your own time. 

The biggest challenge is the lack of hands-on experience. Operating a commercial vehicle is much different from driving a regular car, and it's difficult to get that experience without access to a commercial vehicle. Self-studying also requires a significant amount of self-discipline and motivation. You'll need to be able to understand and interpret complex regulations and procedures on your own.

CDL training school

Going to a CDL training school provides structured learning and hands-on experience. These schools often have commercial vehicles available for practice and for use during your test. They also have experienced instructors who can provide insights, clarify doubts, and offer practical tips that you may not get from a book. The structured curriculum can make it easier to learn and understand the material.

The most significant downside to CDL training schools is the cost. These programs can cost between $3,000 to $7,000, which may be prohibitive for some. The programs also require a time commitment, which may be challenging for individuals who are working or have other obligations.

Carrier-sponsored CDL training

Some carriers offer sponsored CDL training, where they cover the cost of your CDL training in return for a commitment to work for them for a specified period. This can be an attractive option as it provides structured, hands-on training while solving any financial challenges. Moreover, you have a guaranteed job waiting for you once you pass your CDL test.

The major drawback is that you're obligated to work for the sponsoring carrier for the agreed period, which could range from a few months to a year or more. If the job isn’t a good fit or if you receive a better offer elsewhere, you're still tied to the agreement. The pay during the initial period may also be less compared to other jobs, as the carrier recoups the training costs.

Each of these paths has its own advantages and challenges. The best path for you depends on your individual circumstances, including your financial situation, learning style, and career plans.

CDL types

Class A

Class A license is the most comprehensive commercial driver's license and is considered the "universal" CDL, providing the opportunities for driving a variety of commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. Vehicles that can be driven with a Class A CDL (subject to endorsements) include but are not limited to tractor-trailers, truck and trailer combinations, flatbeds, livestock carriers, and tank vehicles. The driver can operate any combination of vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, provided that the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is over 10,000 pounds.

Class B

Class B CDL holders can operate single vehicles with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds. The key difference from Class A is that these drivers are not permitted to tow loads weighing over 10,000 pounds. Examples of vehicles you can drive with a Class B CDL (subject to endorsements) include straight trucks, large buses (city buses, tourist buses), segmented buses, box trucks (like delivery drivers and furniture movers), and dump trucks with small trailers.

Class C

Class C CDL is designed for vehicles not covered by Class A or B, but which are designed to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver), or used in the transportation of hazardous materials. This includes vehicles such as small HazMat vehicles, passenger vans, and combination vehicles not covered by Classes A or B. Essentially, a Class C CDL is intended for drivers who don't meet the criteria for a Class A or B license but still drive commercial vehicles that carry a large number of passengers or transport hazardous materials.

Remember that each of these classes can have further specializations, known as endorsements, such as passenger and school bus endorsements, tanker truck endorsements, and hazardous materials (hazmat) endorsements. Each endorsement requires the driver to pass additional knowledge and skills tests.

Pros and cons


  • Employment opportunities: Obtaining a CDL can open a wider range of job opportunities. Many companies, especially those in transportation and logistics, require a CDL for their drivers. The demand for commercial drivers is always high, ensuring consistent job opportunities.
  • Earning potential: Generally, jobs requiring a CDL pay more than jobs that require only a standard driver's license. Drivers with certain endorsements (like HazMat or doubles/triples) can often command higher wages due to the specialized skills required.
  • Job security: As the demand for goods transportation is consistent and even growing, there is a strong level of job security for CDL holders. Despite advancements in automation, the need for skilled drivers remains high.
  • Endorsements: CDL holders have the opportunity to add endorsements to their license (such as for hazmat, tankers, or school buses), which can enable them to operate a broader range of vehicles or transport certain types of goods, potentially increasing their employability and income.


  • Initial investment: The process of obtaining a CDL can be costly, both in terms of time and money. Prospective drivers typically need to complete training programs, which can be expensive, and then pass written and skills-based tests.
  • Strict regulations: Commercial drivers are subject to stricter regulations than non-commercial drivers. This includes more stringent drug and alcohol testing, lower acceptable blood alcohol levels, and stricter rules about traffic violations. CDL holders can lose their license for violations that wouldn't affect non-commercial drivers.
  • Physically and mentally demanding: Driving large commercial vehicles can be physically demanding, requiring long hours behind the wheel. It can also be stressful due to tight delivery schedules and the responsibility of transporting large amounts of goods or passengers.
  • Lifestyle considerations: Many commercial driving jobs, especially long-haul trucking, require spending extended periods away from home. This can lead to a challenging work-life balance and might not be suitable for everyone.

Explore your options

Now that you've enhanced your understanding of CDL and its pivotal role in the trucking industry, if you're considering acquiring a CDL, FreightWaves Ratings partners with reliable entities such as Driving Tests and Roehl

Driving Tests, a leading provider of CDL practice tests, can support you in preparing effectively for your examinations, while Roehl, a renowned carrier, offers opportunities for CDL training sponsorships. By taking advantage of these partnerships, you can leverage their experience, reliable services, and strategic opportunities to successfully obtain your CDL and fuel the advancement of your career in the trucking industry.

Commercial Drivers License (CDL) | FreightWaves Ratings
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