If you’re looking to start your career in trucking, you might be daunted by all the steps needed to get your CDL license. Most prospective driver concerns fall under four categories.
Will my background affect applying for a CDL?
Will I be able to pass my DOT physical exam?
How much time will it take to graduate?
How much will it cost to take lessons versus how much money will I make?
This comprehensive guide will answer all of your questions, as well as inform you of everything you need to know before you apply for your CDL.
How old you need to be to get your CDL
In most cases, your background will not affect your ability to apply for a CDL training permit. You must be at least 18 years of age if you plan to drive intrastate but you must be at least 21 years of age in order to drive interstate.
You must be able to communicate in English
The FMCSA specifies that you need to be able to read and understand road signs, converse generally with the general public, respond to official inquiries and make entry reports and records.
If English is not your first language, you should ensure that you are conversational and able to understand and use specialized language as it pertains to trucking.
If you are unable to speak, have difficulty hearing and/or are deaf, you may not need to prove your ability to speak English so long as you are capable of reading and writing in English.
You do not need to have any prior education in trucking or have a high school diploma (or GED).However, understanding English, math and other classroom skills will be necessary to complete the CDL training, some carriers will also require you to have completed a high school education in order to consider your job application. You must also have a class D drivers’ license.
If you have a criminal background, you may still be able to apply for a CDL permit, depending on the nature of the offense.
You will be automatically disqualified if you have a felony conviction involving driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.08%, a felony involving the use of a commercial motor vehicle, vehicle manslaughter in the first or second degree, or causing a fatal accident through dangerous or negligent driving.
Some felons (mostly pertaining to espionage, treason and terrorism) will automatically disqualify you from obtaining a Hazmat (H or X) endorsement.
While you can earn your CDL with a criminal record (assuming you haven’t been disqualified for any of the above), you may still have difficulties finding work as some carriers are unable to hire drivers who have had previous convictions or felons but there are felon-friendly companies sometimes called “second-chance” carriers. You also stand a better chance of getting hired if you are able to complete SAP attendance requirements (if you have a DUI on your record).
Traffic violations affect your ability to get or keep a CDL mostly on a state to state basis. Some violations will bar drivers from operating a commercial vehicle for an amount of time according to FMCSA policy but are unlikely to bar you from obtaining a CDL altogether.
If you have moving violations or accidents, this can make finding a job harder as carriers prefer clean records (this is largely down to their insurance), but it’s not impossible. Some carriers can waiver one or two violations or even an accident depending on the nature of the offense.
Health related barriers
When it comes to your DOT physical exam, you will be tested with any aids you require in your everyday life (e.g. glasses, blood pressure medication, hearing aids etc).
The exam pays attention to disqualifying conditions such as vision and hearing impairments, epilepsy or other seizure related disorders, fainting spells, uncontrolled hypertension, heart conditions, respiratory conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, psychiatric disorders (including substance abuse and addictions).
However, if your condition is controlled through medication, improves or is proved to be not interrupting your day-to-day (e.g. insulin used to control diabetes) then you may pass the exam but may need to retest on a more frequent basis.
Drivers are encouraged to look after themselves both physically and mentally in order to keep their health in good condition. If you’re meeting regularly with your doctor concerning an ongoing condition, make sure to get information about your medication and the management of your condition so that you can provide accurate information during your DOT physical exam.
How long it takes to get your CDL
Spending time training can be a financial risk for some prospective drivers. You will be using a significant amount of your time both in the classroom and outside of it studying for your theory training and you, as an individual, need to make hard decisions about what you can currently prioritize in your life when it comes to taking on training.
After acquiring your learner’s permit (CLP), you must complete entry-level driver training (ELDP) which must be provided by a certified training provider (You can find the training provider registry here).
If you have had your CLP for at least 14 days and completed ELDP, then you are eligible to take the CDL skills test. This means the absolute minimum time you could spend on training is two weeks.
However, most driver training programs offer a four to six week intensive training period. This is considered a 9-5 workload and will cover all of the education needed to pass the skills tests.
If you have a full time position or other commitments which take up your time, many training schools offer a 3 month alternative which covers the same material over a longer period of time. This is a great option for people who cannot afford to take time out of their lives. However, it is not any easier than the one month intensive training and you will still be expected to study and prepare for your sessions.
Some training courses will offer intensive training lasting as little as three weeks and occasionally less, however, this should be scrutinized thoroughly before you commit to one of these courses.
Three weeks is often not enough time to adequately prepare for your skills tests and even if you pass those, you may be at a disadvantage to students who have managed to acquire more hours in the truck than you.
How much getting your CDL costs
The average cost of CDL training is between $3,000 and $7,000, it can be lower or higher depending on the state and whether you do the training through a school, community college or private provider.
Luckily there are means to support you financially through CDL training.
You can sign onto a company which will pay for your training (and also receive a wage!). Often these are larger carriers (sometimes dubbed “mega carriers”) who you sign a contract with stating that in return for the paid education, you will work X amount of months or years with that company.
If you leave the company or are dismissed before that contract is finished, you will be obligated to pay for the education you received in full or up to an amount “left over” depending on how long you’ve worked there and what your contract has stipulated.
This has the added benefit of giving you a guaranteed job at the end of your training and, often, the carrier will expect you to complete a certain amount of hours with a trainer on the road during the first few months of your employment.
While some drivers are hesitant to work for big companies, this option can provide a very stable career and it can be especially useful for rookie drivers to have that stability of employment and income so they can get used to the ins and outs of the profession before moving on.
If it is not possible to train with a carrier or you simply don’t want to lock yourself into a contract or work for a larger company, you can apply for financial aid for your studies.
Some CDL schools are compatible with scholarships, grants and other subsidies, often these will be listed on the school’s website. Depending on the type of aid you receive, you may have your education fully paid for or without any upfront fees. You may receive partial payment towards your training or have to pay back but without interest fees or at a slower/lower rate than general loans. While finding and applying for financial aid can be a long process, it can definitely be worth the time and effort if it helps you to access training. This may not be a great option if you need to start working/earn a wage immediately, but can be an excellent choice if you have that flexibility.
If you are certain you want to go it alone, you can save up and pay entirely out of pocket for your training, or (only in an emergency) take out a loan to cover the expenses. If you are stable enough financially to handle this option and you have 100% certainty that you want a CDL career then feel free to pursue it, but it is a high risk investment which can leave you severely unstable if you have a financial emergency or if you are unable to keep up with repayments. You can mitigate some of this risk by having a job lined up immediately after training but you will likely be expected to obtain your CDL within a set amount of time if you have a deal with a particular employer.
Finding work as a new driver
If you are a new driver, it can be harder to find work as many carriers often look for at least two years of experience. However, it is possible to find carriers able to hire new drivers. Typically these carriers are larger and/or will offer OTR positions, but there are a number of carriers which are mid-size or smaller and/or are able to offer local or regional positions to new drivers.
If you’ve read through and are still able to and excited to start your career in trucking, congratulations in advance on getting your CDL! We look forward to seeing you browsing our job board for rookie positions. If you are a new driver with no experience (or if you just want to browse what sort of jobs are available to new drivers), you can check out all of our rookie positions at www.lanefinder.com/q-no_experience. If you are an SAP or felon driver, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] and our driver team will help to find you positions that work for you.