What's A Commercial Driver's License (CDL)?

police officer holding drivers license

Most people have a non-commercial driver’s license, but if you’re interested in taking part in the trucking and transportation industry, then you would have to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). A CDL enables you to drive WITH compensation. So if you have come across a tow truck on the freeway or buses in your morning commute, it’s safe to conclude that the drivers behind those commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) were able to obtain a CDL (unless they’re driving illegally which is a BIG NO NO).

But there are different classes of CDL that you need to watch out for. And depending on what you want to do, you’re going to need a specific type and probably some special endorsements to operate specific CMVs.

California Commercial Driver’s License Class C (CDL Class C)

With a CDL Class C, you’re able to drive any vehicle that a non-CDL class C holder can. But on top of that, you also need to acquire specific endorsements for the type of entities you’re transporting. For example, if you are transporting a maximum of 16 passengers in your vehicle, you’re going to need a P endorsement from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). If you’re transporting Hazardous Materials, you will need an H endorsement.

California Commercial Driver’s License Class B (CDL Class B)

With a Class B Commercial License in California, you’re able to operate vehicles weighing more than 26,000 pounds, and are able to tow cars weighing up to 10,000 lbs. They’re also allowed to drive vehicles that a CDL Class C holder can operate. However, you may need to obtain DMV endorsements when transporting specific entities. For example, if you wish to be a school bus driver, you’ll need to obtain the S endorsement.

California Commercial Driver’s License Class A (CDL Class A)

With a Class A Commercial License in California, you’re beholden to the least amount of restrictions than the other types of CDL. You’re able to drive “any legal combination of vehicles” weighing more than 26,000 pounds and are able to tow vehicles weighing more than 10,000 lbs.

Entry Level Driver Training (ELDT)

Starting February 7, 2022, prospective CDL holders now have to fulfill the Entry Level Driver Training (ELDT) before getting their commercial licenses as long as it’s conducted by those approved by the federal Training Provider Registry. This applies to those who want to upgrade their licenses (ie: B → A & C → B), and/or obtain new endorsements. If you already obtained a CDL or your desired endorsements prior to this date, you are not required to complete ELDT.

Acing the California Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Permit Test

Before you even get your license, you first need to get your Commercial Learner’s Permit. You will need to bring the following in the DMV:

  • 10 year history record check (DL 939)

  • Medical Examination Report (MER) Form

  • Medical Examiner’s Certification (MEC) (MCSA 5876)

  • Proof of SSN

  • Verify identity with acceptable identity document

  • Acceptable residency documents (if you haven’t obtained a CA DL or ID card)

  • Application fee ($50-85)

In the DMV, you will:

  • Have your thumbprint scanned

  • Take a vision exam

  • Have your photo taken

  • Take the *knowledge test

*Please note that you may only take the knowledge test three times and that they cannot be taken 30 minutes before the DMV closes.

Operating a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) with a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP)

Once you pass your CLP, you are able to take the skills test two weeks after obtaining your permit. Even if you decide to take it at a later time, you still need to hold yourself accountable and master the skills necessary to operate your desired CMV. Your permit will only last you for 180 days. However, you can still renew it for another term given that this renewal happened within a year since you first obtained your permit.

To operate your CMV, you will need:

  • A valid California Driver’s License

  • The company of a driver with proper endorsements and commercial license

Obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in California

Once you’ve gotten enough practice using your permit, it’s time to look into actually getting the license! You will need to:

  • Schedule a skills test appointment

  • Bring the CMV you want to drive

  • Pass the skills test (inc: vehicle inspection, basic control skills test, road test)

Eligibility to waive CDL skills test

Well-qualified applicants are able to waive the skills test as long as they:

  • Have a valid CDL from another state (can be expired for less than two years)

  • Are able to submit a Certificate of Driving Skill signed by you and your employer

  • Possess a Commercial Military Waiver (only applies if they have military driving experience)

  • Completed CDL training and passed a skills test in another state while having a California CLP (You will still need to finalize your application at the DMV Commercial Driving Test Office.)

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