Operating a heavy-duty vehicle requires specialized knowledge and licensing that far exceeds the basic skills needed to drive cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs.

Commonly referred to as Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMV) by trucking industry insiders, drivers must acquire the knowledge, experience, skills, and physical abilities necessary to operate them and then pass a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) examination. Applicants face testing that covers safety and practical knowledge, as well as the ability to handle a big rig in real-time. 

In recent years, agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) created additional physical fitness standards. As a result, professional truck drivers must now demonstrate their health and wellness to operate a CMV safely.

It’s essential for people considering a top-paying job as a truck driver to understand drug and alcohol testing are now standard practices. Along with moving violations or too many accidents, the FMCSA or a state department of transportation can sideline a driver over safety concerns. 

Understanding the difference between these three key types of truck driving licenses is the first step to determining which license type is right for you. 

do i need a cdl

What is a Class A CDL?

Possessing a Class A CDL allows truckers to operate iconic tractor-trailers. A Class A license is typically what everyday people imagine when talking about operating big rigs on the open road.

With a Class A commercial driver’s license, truckers can operate any combination of vehicles whose gross weight exceeds 26,001, as long as the towed portions are over 10,000 pounds. These typically include tractor-trailers, trucks with a trailer combination, livestock vehicles, flatbeds, and tankers, among others. It’s also not uncommon for states to require people who own and drive large RVs to possess a Class A or appropriate CDL.

trucking endorsementsTruckers who secure their Class A drivers license generally earn good salaries, and the persistent national driver shortage means drivers with clean records remain gainfully employed. Many Class A CDL-holders also enjoy the opportunity to increase their salaries by earning what the FMCSA calls “endorsements.” By passing tests to haul sensitive or hazardous materials, truckers typically see pay increases. These lettered endorsements correspond to niche loads truckers can haul.

  • H: This designation allows professional drivers to transport loads considered hazardous material or HAZMAT. After obtaining a Class A CDL, drivers must pass a written knowledge test.  
  • N: This endorsement allows truckers to operate tanker vehicles carrying sometimes volatile liquids and gasses. Drivers must pass a written knowledge test to earn this designation.
  • T: Although Class A CDLs clear truckers to operate semis, hauling multiple trailers requires this endorsement. Operating a double or triple trailer usually requires drivers to pass an additional knowledge test.
  • X: Although the H endorsement allows truckers to haul HAZMAT loads, additional knowledge is required to transport tankers filled with these sometimes dangerous materials. The X designation tasks CDL-holders with passing another niche knowledge examination.  

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics pegged median heavy-duty truck driver salaries at $47,130 per year, $22.66 per hour, in 2020. Higher demand for qualified men and women with a Class A driver’s license prompted freight carriers and fleet operations to dramatically increase salaries and offer sign-on bonuses. Class A driver’s license salaries hovered around $68,000 in 2021 and are only expected to improve. However, large fleet operations and owner-operators enjoy top salaries that can exceed $100,000.

What is a Class B CDL?

Traveling America’s highways as a long-haul trucker is not necessarily for everyone. Those who wish to earn a steady income as a truck driver can also secure a Class B driver’s license. This CDL allows professionals to operate certain vehicles with a gross combination weight at or above 26,001 pounds.

While that threshold mirrors a Class A driver’s license, women and men with a Class B driver’s license cannot lawfully tow a trailer or other load that exceeds 10,000 pounds. That may seem like hair-splitting to people unfamiliar with the freight hauling industry. However, it typically separates over-the-road (OTR) truckers from those working local or regional routes and occupations. With a Class B driver’s license, everyday people can operate CMVs that include the following:

        • Straight Trucks
        • Passenger and Public Transportation Buses
        • Segmented Passenger Buses
        • School Buses
        • Box Trucks
        • Dump Trucks Pulling Low-Weight Trailers
        • Tractor-Trailers that Do Not Exceed Weight Thresholds

Like professionals who earn a Class A, qualified Class B CDL-holders can also secure endorsements. The endorsement restrictions placed on a Class B driver’s license involve gross weight and not necessarily the materials. But the one endorsement people with a Class B driver’s license generally pursue more than Class A CDL-holders is “P.” The P endorsement allows professionals with a Class B driver’s license to operate school buses.

Entry-level workers with a Class B driver’s license started at an average of $33,000 in 2020, and top earners exceeded $50,000. People who work as Class B drivers enjoy job growth rates of approximately 5 percent, year-over-year, as well as steady employment in most regions.

What is a Class C CDL?

class c cdlEarning a Class C driver’s license allows men and women to operate a single vehicle with a weight lower than 26,001 pounds. A Class C driver’s license opens the door for professionals to tow another vehicle of no more than 10,000 pounds as well as passenger vehicles of 15 riders plus the driver, totaling a maximum of 16 people. These rank among the common CMVs operated by people with a Class C driver’s license.

  • Straight Trucks
  • Cement Mixers
  • Passenger Buses
  • Segmented Buses
  • Food Trucks
  • Garbage Trucks
  • Box Trucks

Like a Class A and B CDL, endorsements can be secured by passing knowledge examinations. The “H” or HAZMAT endorsement ranks among the more prevalent among Class C CDL-holders.

How To Earn Your CDL Drivers License?

Securing any CDL opens the door to steady, good-paying work with little worry of landing on unemployment. The country has struggled with a shortage of qualified CDL professionals for more than a decade, and industry insiders anticipate the workforce gap will only increase. Although that may not be good news for freight carriers and fleet operations, it puts truckers squarely in the driver’s seat. That being said, these are steps everyday people need to take to embark on a career as a truck driver.

5 Steps To Get Your CDL License

  1. Age Requirements: To operate a CMV across state lines, drivers generally must be a least 21 years old. The federal government has carved out some exceptions. A qualified CDL can usually operate CMVs within a particular state, depending on its regulations.
  2. Apply: File an application with the state you possess a driver’s license and include appropriate documentation, including identity verification, proof of residency, and your Social Security number.
  3. Testing: Applicants must submit a completed Medical Examination Report Form and Medical Examiner’s Certificate, as well as pass a vision and knowledge test.
  4. Learner’s Permit: Following the successful completion of knowledge and physical testing, applicants are typically issued a learner’s permit. The minimum wait time to schedule a CDL road skills test is usually 14 days.
  5. Road Test: Applicants must pass a pre-trip inspection, road skills exam and pay the standard fees after receiving a passing grade. It’s important for applicants to keep in mind DMVs typically do not provide a CMV. Remember to make advanced arrangements to have a CMV available for the road skills test.

Those interested in a career as a CDL professional typically enroll in a truck driver training school. These organizations usually provide in-class instruction to help pass knowledge examinations as well as an opportunity to get behind the wheel and develop practical road skills.

Tuition fees tend to be relatively modest, and leading truck driver training schools often have a long-standing relationship with freight carriers. It’s not unusual for freight hauling outfits to offer newly-minted CDL-holders sign-on bonuses that offset upfront tuition expenses. 

To learn more about truck driving schools in your area, see our truck driver training school guide.

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