Class A CDL: What It Is and How to Get One
The Class A commercial driver’s license (Class A CDL) is the broadest type of commercial driver’s license in all states. Read on to learn what distinguishes a CDL A from other commercial driver’s licenses and how to get a Class A CDL, including common requirements for a Class A license and what you’ll learn in a Class A CDL training program. This page also details endorsements and jobs you can get with a Class A CDL along with salary ranges.
What Can I Do With a CDL A?
A CDL A authorizes drivers to operate a combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, which includes a towed vehicle that may weigh more than 10,000 pounds. Examples of trucks you can drive with a CDL Class A are tractor-trailers, truck and trailer combinations, tanker vehicles, flatbeds, and livestock carriers.
Working as a truck driver can mean great pay without a degree. However, the career often requires driving for long hours and sometimes lifting and carrying heavy cargo. Some jobs—like long-haul truck driving—may mean being away from your home base for days or weeks at a time, and expected daily distances can run between 285 and 430 miles per day. If that lifestyle doesn’t interest you, there are also regional or local truck driving jobs for CDL A holders.
CDL A vs. CDL B and CDL C Truck Driving Licenses
CDLs permit drivers to operate large commercial motor vehicles. These licenses have different classes—each with its own set of requirements and specific jobs. Class A CDL holders can legally drive Class B and C vehicles based on weight, though to drive some types of Classes B and C vehicles, a Class A CDL holder would still need a specific endorsement.
In practice, the higher weight limits and types of vehicles that you’re qualified to drive with a CDL A—such as tractor-trailers and tank vehicles. This means you can hold some of the most lucrative trucking jobs within commercial driving, especially once you’ve gained experience and a good safety record.
A CDL B allows the holder to drive a single vehicle (but not a combination of vehicles) with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or a vehicle towing a trailer that weighs less than 10,000 pounds. CDL B holders can drive straight trucks, large buses like school buses, city buses, tourist buses, segmented buses, box trucks, including delivery and furniture trucks, and dump trucks, with some of these vehicles requiring additional endorsements such as one for passenger vehicles. CDL B holders can also drive Class C vehicles by weight, but certain Class C vehicles will also require the right endorsements.
With a CDL C, drivers can operate all other vehicles that don’t meet Class A or Class B definitions but transport 16 or more passengers or hazardous material. CDL C holders can drive smaller tank trucks, trucks transporting hazardous materials, and smaller passenger vans.
Endorsements That Go With a CDL A Truck Driving License
Endorsements are add-ons to your CDL that allow CDL drivers to operate certain types of commercial motor vehicles. They require additional knowledge and/or skills testing.
CDL A holders can obtain the following endorsements:
- T—Double/Triple Trailer Endorsement: This endorsement allows you to tow more than one trailer. You need to take a knowledge test to obtain a T endorsement.
- P—Passenger Endorsement: P endorsements authorize you to transport passengers and require knowledge and skills tests. You must have an acceptable driving record for this endorsement.
- N—Tank Vehicle Endorsement: An N endorsement allows you to transport liquid or liquid gas in a permanently mounted cargo tank rated at 119 gallons or more or a portable tank rated at 1,000 gallons or more. This endorsement only requires a knowledge test.
- H—Hazardous Materials Endorsement: H endorsements authorize drivers to transport placarded hazardous materials. You only need to pass a knowledge test for this endorsement.
- X—Combination of Tank Vehicle and Hazardous Materials Endorsements: An X endorsement allows you to transport hazardous materials in a tank vehicle. You’ll need to take a knowledge test for this endorsement.
- S—School Bus Endorsement: You’ll need an S and P endorsement to operate a school bus. An S endorsement requires knowledge and skills tests. You must have an acceptable driving record for this endorsement.
Learn more about possible endorsements and restrictions on your CDL.
Requirements for a CDL A Truck Driving License
Drivers wishing to obtain a CDL A license need to meet a series of medical, residency, and knowledge and skills requirements. Specific CDL A licensing procedures and requirements vary slightly by state, so be sure to check with your state’s CDL licensing office or DMV—but typical steps to obtaining your CDL A are:
- Get a commercial learner’s permit
- Complete a CDL A training program. Starting Feb. 7, 2022, new Class A CDL applicants (as well as new Class B CDL applicants, those upgrading from a CDL B to a CDL A, and those obtaining a school bus, passenger, or hazardous materials endorsement) must meet Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) federal requirements, which includes obtaining training from qualifying programs.
- Pass knowledge and practical skills tests
- Pass a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) physical exam and any other state-required background checks. This includes turning over a Medical Examiner’s (ME) Certificate showing you’re medically fit to drive these vehicles—including vision, hearing, medical conditions, etc.
- Have your driving record checked in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the last 10 years
Step 1: Getting a Commercial Learner’s Permit
Before you can sit behind a wheel, you need to get a commercial learner’s permit, which allows you to drive with a current CDL holder. Depending on the CDL training program you are attending, you may need to get this permit before you begin a truck driving school.
In general, getting your commercial learner’s permit isn’t too different from receiving a standard driver’s permit—it’s when you get your actual license (above) that you need to take extra steps. Most states require the following for you to get your permit:
- Be at least 21 years old, or 18 years old if you are planning to drive within one state only
- Submit a commercial learner’s permit application and pay the application fee
- Provide proof of your social security number, identity, and residency
- Most states require you have a valid non-commercial driver’s license issued from that state.
States may require different forms needed to verify your social security number, identity, and residency. Typical examples of documents include a social security card, a U.S. birth certificate or certified copy of one, a residence card, and a utility bill.
Step 2: Complete a CDL A Training Program
To drive commercial trucks, some states require the successful completion of a CDL training program. As of February 2022, those obtaining a CDL A for the first time or certain endorsements must go through training that meets federal requirements.
A CDL training program is meant to prepare you for your CDL licensure exam and can be offered by licensed, certified, or accredited schools, including training programs operated by trucking carriers and employers. Trucking agencies may work with schools to place you in a job after earning your license.
Every school is different, but your training program’s main components will include both theoretical and hands-on learning. Your program’s theoretical portion will typically include the rules of the road, map reading, road signals, and logbook management. You’ll likely also learn how to maneuver large loads, perform pre- and post-trip inspections, and complete tasks like turning around and backing up in a commercial truck.
Programs can cost anywhere from $3,000-10,000. Some schools offer online training for the theoretical aspect of your education before you undergo behind-the-wheel instruction.
If you cannot pay for truck driving school yourself and do not qualify for financial aid, an option to consider is a company-paid training program. This is a truck driving school operated by a specific trucking carrier. In exchange for training, you commit to working for that employer for a specific length of time after you obtain your CDL.
Step 3: Pass CDL A Exams
You’ll need to pass both a knowledge test and a skills exam to secure your CDL Class A license. The required knowledge test may cover any topics included in the CDL manual. You may also need to pass written exams for any endorsements you wish to receive, such as the hazardous waste endorsement.
In addition to knowledge, you’ll be tested on behind-the-wheel skills. Subjects tested may include vehicle inspection, basic vehicle control, and anything else you may do on the road.
Step 4: Pass the DOT Physical and Background Checks
You will also be required to get a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) medical card (which includes receiving a DOT physical examination). This can be performed by any licensed medical examiner (ME) who appears on the FMCSA National Registry and must be repeated every 24 months—fewer if the ME believes you need a check-up earlier.
The ME will look at your vision, hearing, and physical and mental fitness. Some medical conditions may be non-negotiable and bar you from driving a truck, but many are eligible for exemption if you can prove they won’t hinder your ability to drive. Be open and honest with your ME during the process so you can keep both yourself and others on the road safe.
CDL A Salary and Job Growth
A CDL Class A license may open you up to more job opportunities and provide a higher salary than Class B and C CDLs. As mentioned above, you can drive a variety of vehicles with this license, and salaries vary based on the type you choose:
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods long distances. These truck drivers earn a median annual salary of $48,310 ($23.23 per hour), and the anticipated job growth for this career is 6% between 2020 and 2030—though that growth figure only includes newly created roles and not the significant number of open roles today and in the foreseeable future. Long-haul driving garners a higher pay than other truck driving careers, though there is often a trade-off with time spent at home.
- Delivery truck drivers pick up, drop off, or transport packages within a local or urban region. The average annual salary for this trucking position is $36,660 ($17.62 per hour)—however, the pay differs depending upon the industry you work for. The expected job growth for delivery truck drivers is faster than average at 12% between 2020 and 2030.
- Bus drivers earn a median salary of $48,620 ($23.37 per hour) as of 2021, and jobs are expected to grow by 21% between 2020 and 2030.
- Self-reporting site PayScale reports hazardous waste transporters can earn an average of $65,000, and fuel truck drivers make $58,502.
Learn more about the variety of careers in commercial trucking.