Trucking

Types of CDLs: A Guide to Commercial Driver's Licenses

CloudTrucks Team

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Commercial driver’s licenses (CDL) are required for the operation of many different types of large vehicles you see on the road every day. But, did you know the vehicle a driver is permitted to operate is determined by the type of CDL they have? 

From Class A to Class B to Class C which each correspond with a different weight class known as Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), we’re here to break down the differences between each CDL and the various related endorsements that allow more types of vehicles to be operated.

What is a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)?

A CDL is required for the operation of specialized vehicles such as heavy trucks and buses. For example, heavy, oversized vehicles that move bulk commodities and large equipment or carry multiple passengers, like a school bus, require specific types of CDLs. 

Additional endorsements can be added to a CDL that permit drivers to transport hazardous materials like chemicals, explosives, flammable liquids, or radioactive substances. Other endorsements allow drivers to operate specialized equipment like double and triple combination tractor-trailer units or transport bulk liquids in tanker trailers.

A CDL is required for the operation of specialized vehicles such as heavy trucks and buses.

Every truck driver you see, regardless of the type of equipment they’re operating or cargo they’re hauling, is required to have a CDL that is appropriate to the class of vehicle they’re driving and the type of cargo they’re transporting. 

The requirements for obtaining a CDL may vary from state to state. However, the guidelines governing what a driver can and can’t do with their level of CDL are firmly established by the federal government. 

What about a CLP?

A CLP is a commercial learner’s permit that works a lot like the learner’s permit for your standard automobile. To obtain a CLP, the student truck driver must first successfully complete the written exam portion of the CDL testing. Then, they are issued their CLP, enabling them to practice operating a heavy truck on public roads as long as they have someone with a CDL sitting next to them. Typically, the CLP holder will practice in the type of vehicle matching the class of CDL they are applying for.

Types of CDLs

The most commonly held CDL is the Class A. This CDL enables truck drivers to operate the full range of commercial vehicles, making it easier to find driving jobs and eliminating the need to return to a truck driving school or trucking company for additional training. Furthermore, with the Class A CDL you’re permitted to operate any type of vehicle covered under either a Class B or Class C, as well as to drive a Class 8 tractor.

...with the Class A CDL you’re permitted to operate any type of vehicle covered under either a Class B or Class C

Class A CDL

Drivers operating a classic big rig with the truck and trailer that we commonly think of when we think of truck drivers are required to hold a Class A CDL. This class of CDL is the highest level of licensure, permitting the driver to operate any type of vehicle covered by lower level CDL classes. A driver with a Class A CDL can also operate combination vehicles (tractor-trailer units) with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 lbs or more, as well as a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 lbs or more. 

Vehicles requiring a Class A CDL include:

  • Tractor-trailers
  • Truck and trailer combinations (same as above)
  • Tank vehicles
  • Livestock carriers
  • Flatbeds

Class B CDL

Class B CDL holders are permitted to operate single vehicles with a gross weight rating of 26,001 lbs or more, or a vehicle towing another vehicle with a gross weight less than 10,000 lbs. They are not permitted to operate Class A vehicles including tractor-trailer combination units, but they are permitted to operate Class C vehicles. 

Some of the vehicles operated by Class B CDL holders include:

  • Straight trucks
  • Large passenger buses
  • Segmented buses
  • Box trucks
  • Dump trucks with small trailers
  • Certain combination vehicles as long as they are not considered Class A

Class C CDL

A Class C CDL is required for vehicles that do not meet the criteria of Class A or Class B, but are used to transport sixteen or more passengers, hazardous materials as defined by 49 U.S.C. 5103 requiring placards, or any material designated as a select agent or toxin under 42 CFR Part 73. 

Vehicles that you may operate with a Class C CDL include:

  • Small hazardous materials vehicles
  • Passenger vans
  • Combination vehicles that are below the limits set for Class A or B

How Much Does It Cost To Get a CDL?

The cost of a CDL is largely dependent on your state of residence. To determine the exact cost for your state, please visit your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Revenue website. That being said, here is a breakdown of the average prices:

  • Permits (CLP) can cost up to $90.
  • Application fees range between $0 - $43. 
  • Endorsements cost between $5 to $10 (this does not include testing fees).
  • Written tests can cost up to $125 each.
  • The skills testing which includes road test, pre-trip inspection test, and basic vehicle control test can cost up to $250.
  • The CDL itself can cost up to $120.

How Hard Is It To Get a CDL?

Each state provides a comprehensive Commercial Driver’s License training manual, available online or at your local testing center. Some time spent studying this training manual will provide you with all the information you need for passing the written exams (including endorsement exams). Most folks find the written exams easy to pass. In addition to studying ahead of time here are our suggestions to maximize your chances for passing your written exams:

  • Read the exam questions and the available answers carefully.
  • On the day of your exam make sure you are well rested and hydrated.
  • Make use of additional study aides available online if you have difficulty with understanding any of the concepts presented in the training manual.

That covers the written portion of the testing, but what about the skills test where your actual driving abilities are evaluated? The key to a smooth and successful skills testing is practice. The more you practice ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be on test day, and the better you’ll score. Here’s a few tips for the skills exams:

  • Practice the pre-trip inspection daily, several times a day until you know every step of the inspection and every part of the truck and trailer like the back of your hand.
  • Depending on your selected method for training, you may be able to gain extra practice for the backing portions of the testing.

When Do You Need a CDL?

Federal regulations require you to have a CDL if you are operating a vehicle with a gross combination weight of 26,001 pounds or more, transporting sixteen passengers or more, or transporting hazardous materials across state lines. If you do not intend to operate a commercial vehicle outside of your home state, you will need to visit your state’s .gov website and/or to determine whether or not you qualify for any exemptions and to ensure that you are fully compliant with commercial vehicle operations within your state’s jurisdiction.

Which CDL has the highest earning potential?

The higher level of training and requirements of a Class A CDL are reflected in the higher pay enjoyed by Class A holders over their Class B and Class C counterparts. The Class A CDL allows individuals to operate in the most lucrative sector of the trucking industry, over-the-road trucking (OTR).

The highest paying trucking jobs in general include:

  • Hazardous materials haulers
  • Oversized loads (such as large industrial equipment, windmill components, etc.)
  • Luxury car hauling
  • Private fleet drivers for large corporations
  • Private fleet drivers for race teams
  • Ice road trucking

Driver Perspective

“Class A. With all the endorsements. Never limit yourself.”

Albert Kohl, 42+ years of experience

CDL Endorsements & Restrictions

Endorsements cover skills for hauling certain types of cargo or using specialized equipment that require additional training and testing. With endorsements, drivers can expand their earnings potential and job prospects.

4 Ways to Get a CDL

  1. Large freight companies. Most large carriers (trucking companies) offer year-round opportunities for individuals to enter their apprenticeship programs. Typically, they start a new training rotation every week, so it’s a simple matter of meeting their basic qualifications and showing up on time for your training cycle. However, they usually require you to work for them for one to two years or pay back the cost of your training if you decide to drive for another company.
  2. Private CDL schools. Through these schools that specialize in CDL training, the price, quality, and time it takes to obtain your CDL through a specialized school is highly varied. Scammers have been known to operate in this aspect of the industry, so it’s important to investigate a private CDL school before handing over your hard earned money. 
  3. Community colleges. Some community colleges and technical schools offer CDL training programs with the added benefit of obtaining financial aid to cover your up-front training costs. If you decide to get your CDL with this method, be sure to search for State grants, scholarships, and companies that offer tuition reimbursement. 
  4. Military Skills Test Waiver Program. This is a provision in the FMCSA licensing requirements that enables military veterans with two years of safe heavy vehicle operation to obtain their CDL without taking the driving test (skills test). To qualify, they must be currently licensed and have operated a military vehicle similar to a heavy commercial vehicle in the past 12 months. More than 40,000 veterans have obtained their CDLs through the program.

Exemptions

Not all truck drivers are required to hold a CDL. Each state makes provisions for various exemptions. To determine whether you qualify for an exemption we recommend visiting your state’s government website for the most accurate information.

Some of the more common exemptions include:

  • Non-commercial transportation of personal property, animals, vehicles, etc. to events like shows and fairs. The rules regarding this type of exemption are usually rather strict, as compensation for the transport is prohibited and the driver is prohibited from involvement in related business ventures, like racing teams.
  • Vehicles less than 10,000 lbs do not require a CDL. However, it is important to consult your state’s website to determine if a chauffeur’s license is required. 
  • In some states, farming operations may be granted CDL exemptions. As always, consult your state’s guidelines to ensure you are compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.

Disqualifications

Because heavy vehicles are inherently more dangerous to operate, CDL holders are held to a higher standard than the average driver. Penalties for traffic offenses are higher, more restrictive, and apply whether the driver is in their personal vehicle or on the job in their commercial truck. 

Furthermore, CDL drivers are tracked and scored on a safety rating system governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, FMCSA, and Commercial Vehicle Safety Association (CVSA). The CVSA usually handles the tracking of safety issues. If a driver accumulates too many safety violations, they can be hit with penalties that range from fines and short-term suspensions to permanent disqualification.

Endorsements Table

Endorsement Code Description
T (Double/Triple) Double/Triple endorsement. Doubles and triples are specialized configurations involving the combination of two to three trailers rather than the usual single trailer combination. To obtain a T endorsement you must pass a written knowledge assessment.
P (Passenger) Passenger endorsement for operating vehicles capable of transporting sixteen or more passengers including the driver. Examples include, limousines, airport shuttles, motor coaches, and buses. You must pass a written knowledge assessment and successfully complete a skills test to obtain a P endorsement.
N (Tank Vehicle) The tank vehicle endorsement is required for legally transporting gas and liquid materials in a tank or tanks rated at 119 gallons or greater, or a single fixed tank of 1,000 gallons or more. To obtain an N endorsement you must pass a written knowledge assessment.
H (Hazardous Materials) The hazardous materials endorsement is required to legally transport materials that may pose a threat as defined by the United States Department of Transportation. To obtain an H endorsement you must pass a written knowledge assessment and a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) background check.
X (Combination Tank and Hazardous Materials) This endorsement is required for transporting hazardous materials in tank vehicles. For example, gasoline tankers, propane tankers, etc. To obtain an X endorsement you must complete the testing and TSA requirements for the tank vehicle endorsement and the hazardous materials endorsement.
S (School Bus) The school bus endorsement is specifically for the operation of school buses. To obtain the S endorsement you must obtain the P (passenger) endorsement and pass a written knowledge assessment and a driving skill test in the class of school bus you intend to operate.

Restrictions Table

Restriction Code Description
L (No air brakes) If a driver fails the air brakes test portion of the CDL written test, or fails the air brake portions of the driving test, or test in a vehicle that is not equipped with full air brakes, the driver will be given this restriction which prohibits them from operating a vehicle with a full air braking system.
Z (Hydraulics over air brake system) If a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle equipped with a hydraulics over air brake system they are restricted to vehicles of this type. The driver is prohibited from operating a commercial motor vehicle equipped with a full air braking system.
E (Automatic Transmission) TIf a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission they are permitted to operate this vehicle type. However, they are not permitted to operate commercial motor vehicles equipped with manual transmissions.
O (no fifth wheel) If a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle without a fifth wheel connection, they will be prohibited from operating vehicles with fifth wheel connections.
M (Class B and Class C passenger vehicles only) If a Class A driver takes the P (passenger) or S (school bus) test in a Class B or C vehicle they will be given the M restriction which limits them to the Class of vehicle they used for their driving skills test.
N (Class C passenger vehicle only) Similar to the M restriction, the N restriction is for a Class B driver who takes the P or S test in a Class C vehicle which limits the driver to operating Class C vehicles for the purpose of transporting passengers.
V (Medical Variance) This restriction is used to indicate that a driver has a medical variance in the CDLIS system. Medical variances are issued by the FMCSA and the V restriction must be added to a driver’s CDL by their state.

Summary

Federal law is the ultimate authority in all things trucking, and CDLs fall well within the federal government’s jurisdiction. Therefore, CDLs are required nationally for operating large/heavy vehicles over 10,000 lbs for the purpose of conducting business. If you are remaining within your state and conducting non-business related transportation, you may be exempt from federal laws and some state laws. As always, consult with both the federal and state websites to ensure you are compliant with the laws and regulations in the area you will be operating your vehicle.

Restriction Code Description
L (No air brakes) If a driver fails the air brakes test portion of the CDL written test, or fails the air brake portions of the driving test, or test in a vehicle that is not equipped with full air brakes, the driver will be given this restriction which prohibits them from operating a vehicle with a full air braking system.
Z (Hydraulics over air brake system) If a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle equipped with a hydraulics over air brake system they are restricted to vehicles of this type. The driver is prohibited from operating a commercial motor vehicle equipped with a full air braking system.
E (Automatic Transmission) TIf a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission they are permitted to operate this vehicle type. However, they are not permitted to operate commercial motor vehicles equipped with manual transmissions.
O (no fifth wheel) If a driver takes their driving skills test in a vehicle without a fifth wheel connection, they will be prohibited from operating vehicles with fifth wheel connections.
M (Class B and Class C passenger vehicles only) If a Class A driver takes the P (passenger) or S (school bus) test in a Class B or C vehicle they will be given the M restriction which limits them to the Class of vehicle they used for their driving skills test.
N (Class C passenger vehicle only) Similar to the M restriction, the N restriction is for a Class B driver who takes the P or S test in a Class C vehicle which limits the driver to operating Class C vehicles for the purpose of transporting passengers.
V (Medical Variance) This restriction is used to indicate that a driver has a medical variance in the CDLIS system. Medical variances are issued by the FMCSA and the V restriction must be added to a driver’s CDL by their state.

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