How do I get my CDL?

Unless you already possess a valid commercial driver license (CDL) from another state, which is easily transferable into a Colorado CDL, obtaining one from scratch is quite a process.Since 9/11, the federal government has instituted a number of regulations relating to CDL licensing that apply to everyone. The federal guidelines are listed later; but first, let’s talk about the Colorado-specific process. The first step in the route is applying for a CDL instruction permit. This is merely a temporary document that allows you to operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) with a licensed commercial driver 21 or older alongside you during training for the final CDL driving test. Of course, before you head down to a local driver license office, you will need to collect a few things first, including a slew of legal documentation to prove you are who you are.

Requirements for Colorado CDL Training Permit

  • You must be 18; even so, this requires a “K” class restriction stamped on the CDL, which limits driving within the state only until age 21 and disallows the toting around of hazardous material requiring a DOT placard.
  • A valid drivers license and CDL permit.
  • Verification of your Social Security number, although it is not required to be listed on either the temporary permit or the actual CDL.
  • Clearing Commercial Driver License Information System (CDLIS) and National Driver Record (NDR) checks.
  • Certificate showing the passing Department of Transportation (DOT) medical examination within the last two years (see Federal Guidelines below).
  • Taking and passing (80% or higher) the basic CDL written test, which will reflect the class and endorsements that you will cover in the CDL driving test. There are various independent companies that offer practice programs for the test, but you can also hunker down and study the CDL Driver Manual. The free test is multiple choice and every question is lifted directly from the handbook, so there are no surprises. Be sure to check to make sure that the driver license office you choose administers written tests.
  • Pay the permit fees.

Obtaining a Colorado CDL

Armed with a temporary permit you are now ready for the final stages of training toward gleaning an actual license. Depending on the class level and endorsements you are trying to achieve, the process could be a snap―or continue to drag out just a bit longer. For example, if you are seeking a hazardous waste (hazmat) endorsement there are still a few federal hoops to jump through starting with filling out the Transportation Safety Administration’s (TSA) background check form and submitting fingerprints at a local TSA office. Check the Web site or call 1-877-429-7746 for locations. The service will set you back $94.

Driving Test

The last major hurdle, and the most important, is to train for and pass the CDL driving test. The driver license offices do not administer the test, instead choosing to outsource it to numerous private, third-party companies.

The actual test contains three parts:

  • Pre-trip vehicle inspection
  • Basic skills
  • On-road Test

The Final Step: Application

  • Go to a full-service driver license office. There are plenty of limited service offices so make sure you head to the right place.
  • Have all the proper identification, including a document with your Social Security number.
  • Possess a current DOT medical certificate.
  • Pass with 80% or higher on all the required written tests for the class and endorsements for which you are applying (see Federal Guidelines below for classes and endorsements).
  • Pass the CDL driver tests.
  • Be ready to relinquish your regular Colorado driver license along with the CDL temporary permit.
  • Pay the $26.50 license fee.
  • Finally, have your photo taken, and sign and fingerprint the license.

Federal Guidelines

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was designed to improve highway safety. Its purpose was to ensure that drivers of commercial vehicles are qualified to drive them, and to remove unsafe drivers from the highways. The Act didn’t require federal driver licensing―states still license commercial drivers―but it established minimum standards that states must meet when issuing commercial driver licenses (CDLs). It required states to upgrade their existing programs to follow the new federal standards. Before the Act was passed, many commercial vehicle drivers operated vehicles they were not properly trained on or qualified to drive. Even in states that had separate license classes, drivers were not necessarily tested in the types of vehicles they would be driving. States must now test commercial drivers according to federal standards, to ensure that drivers know how to operate the trucks or buses they intend to drive. The Act also made it illegal to have more than one driver license. You can hold a regular or commercial driver license, but not both. You can have one license from the state you reside in, but not from any other states. In the past, bad drivers could more easily hide their driving histories by getting several licenses. Today, all the states are connected to a national database to check driver histories.

CDL Classes for Every State

To be eligible for a CDL, you must have a clean driving record. Federal regulations require you to pass a physical exam every two years. To operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce, you must be at least 21. Many states allow those as young as 18 to drive commercial vehicles within the state. You must be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with the public and with law enforcement. The Act established three separate classes of commercial driver’s licenses. Every state issues licenses in these categories:

Class A: Any combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GWVR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.

Class B: Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of 10,000 pounds GVWR.

Class C: Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, that does not meet the definition of Class A or Class B, but is either designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver, or is placarded for hazardous materials. Many states make exceptions for farm vehicles, snow removal vehicles, fire and emergency vehicles, and some military vehicles.


To be licensed for certain types of commercial vehicles, extra testing is required. If you pass, you will receive an endorsement on your CDL. These are the five endorsements that you can apply for. Each requires between one and five knowledge (written) tests, and two require driving (skills) tests.

  • T―Double/Triple Trailers (knowledge test only)
  • P―Passenger (knowledge and skills tests)
  • N―Tank Vehicle (knowledge test only)
  • H―Hazardous Materials (knowledge test only)
  • S―School Buses (knowledge and skills tests)

Requirements for Medical Certification:

In the interest of public safety on the highways, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations require interstate commercial drivers to be medically fit to operate their vehicles safely and competently. You are required to have a physical exam and carry a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) medical certificate if:

You operate a motor vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating (GCWR) or gross vehicle weight (GVW) or gross combination weight (GCW) of 4,536 kilograms (10,001 pounds) or more in interstate commerce.

  • You operate a motor vehicle designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, in interstate commerce.
  • You operate a motor vehicle designed or used to transport between nine and 15 passengers, for direct compensation, beyond 75 air miles from your regular work-reporting location, in interstate commerce.
  • You transport hazardous materials in quantities requiring placards, in interstate commerce. You must carry a current copy of your medical examination certificate with you when you drive. Residents of Mexico or Canada who drive in the United States can be certified by doctors in their countries, provided they meet the U.S. requirements.

Minimum Training Requirements:

There are no federal standards in place for on-the-road commercial driver training. The government only requires that you take and pass your CDL knowledge (written) and skills (driving) tests. Longer-combination-vehicle (LCV) drivers must receive training in driver wellness, driver qualifications, hours of service, and whistleblower protection. Your state’s commercial driver manual is a good place to learn basic information, but you will need to be professionally trained to drive a commercial motor vehicle. In order to pass your driving skills tests, you will need to learn how to inspect vehicles before driving, learn how to couple and uncouple tractors and trailers, and have plenty of practice driving. This includes driving in different conditions and on different road surfaces, turning, parking, backing up, and braking. Many motor carriers train their employees, while other drivers take courses at private driving schools, vocational or technical schools, and community colleges. Individual states often approve or certify training courses. The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) has set minimum standards for training curriculums and certifies driver training courses that meet industry and Federal Highway Administration (FHA) guidelines. Many employers require their drivers to take PTDI-approved training. Some states may specify minimum training guidelines. Check with your state’s motor vehicles department to see if there are minimum training requirements to get your CDL.

Haz-Mat Background Checks:

Under the USA PATRIOT Act, commercial drivers transporting hazardous materials (hazmat) must pass a background records check and be fingerprinted. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for conducting the background checks for all commercial drivers with hazmat endorsements or who want to add hazmat endorsements to their licenses. The TSA developed this program to carry out the USA PATRIOT Act mandate and protect citizens from the potential threat of terrorists using hazmat cargo. The requirement is a result of the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56, Section 1012) and the Safe Explosives Act (Public Law 107-296, Section 1121-1123), ARS § 28-3103(A)(2), and 49 CFR 1572. If the TSA disqualifies you because of your background, you can appeal their finding or seek a waiver. However, if you are found guilty of a disqualifying crime, you must declare any disqualifying conditions and surrender your hazmat endorsement (if you already have it) to your state’s department of motor vehicles or other licensing agency. The TSA charges the following nonrefundable fees for background checks:

Information collection fee: $38
Threat assessment fee: $34
FBI fee: $22
Total: $94

According to the TSA, background checks take between one and eight weeks to complete. You will be notified by mail whether you are approved. If you are approved, you can then go to your state’s licensing authority (usually the department of motor vehicles) to complete your application process. If you are denied, you can appeal or seek a waiver. According to the FMCSA, hazmat endorsements must be renewed at least every five years. However, your state might require renewal more often. You will need a background check each time you renew your hazmat endorsement. You must arrange for the background check no less than 30 days before the expiration of your current approval, or your CDL may be cancelled.

Disqualifying Crimes:

Conviction of any of the following crimes will disqualify you from being eligible for a hazmat endorsement:

  • Murder
  • Assault with intent to murder
  • Espionage
  • Sedition
  • Terrorism
  • Kidnapping or hostage-taking
  • Treason
  • Rape or aggravated sexual abuse
  • Extortion
  • Robbery
  • Arson
  • Bribery
  • Smuggling
  • Immigration violations
  • RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) violations
  • Unlawful possession, use, sale, distribution, or manufacture of an explosive device, firearm, or other weapon
  • Distribution of, intent to distribute, possession, or importation of a controlled substance
  • Dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation, including identity fraud
  • Crimes involving a severe transportation security incident
  • Improper transportation of a hazardous material
  • Conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these crimes We hope that this guide makes the federal CDL requirements easier for you to understand. Remember that your state also has its own guidelines that may be stricter than the federal ones. As a commercial driver, you must also be familiar with other federal regulations so you can comply with them. For more information, consult your employer, or visit the Web site of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.