CDL Driver License Requirements (step by step guide)


What are CDL driver license requirements? This is probably the question that brought you here. Relax, I will explain everything you need to do.  The first thing you need to know is what kinds of tests you will have to pass in order to get your CDL. Getting a CDL (commercial driver’s license) in the United States requires that you pass several different written and driving tests, regardless of the state you are in. Whether you are seeking a CDL in Illinois or Texas passing these tests is a requirement.

These are the tests, both written and driving,  you will have to pass to get your CDL:

1. General Knowledge Test
2. Endorsement Test(s)
3. Commercial Vehicle Pre-Trip Inspection Test
4. CDL Basic Skills Driving Test
5. CDL Road Driving Test


Getting Your CLP (Commercial Learner’s Permit)

Before you  start learning how to drive a commercial vehicle you will first need to get your commercial learner’s permit (CLP). The CLP is legal documentation that you have passed the general knowledge test and are allowed to practice driving a commercial vehicle. Whether you plan on completing your CDL training at a local community college or a private CDL school you need to have your CLP before they will allow you to drive any of their commercial vehicles. Even with the CLP you will not be allowed to drive the vehicle by yourself, you will have to have someone with a valid CDL seated next to you in the vehicle at all times while you are driving.

Once you receive your CLP it is valid for 180 days from the date it was issued to you, this gives you enough time to complete your CDL training and all the other necessary tests so that you can get your CDL and start your driving career. Don’t worry, passing the general knowledge test is not very difficult but it will require some studying on your part. Let’s take a closer look at the general knowledge test.

CDL General Knowledge Test

All states require CDL candidates to pass a multiple choice test called the general knowledge test at their local DMV in order to get a CLP. The test is usually 30 or more multiple choice questions and is easy to prepare for. There are two ways to prepare for the general knowledge test. The first way is to download and study from your states CDL manual. I have each states CDL manual free for download here.  The second way to prepare for the test is to take free general knowledge practice tests online. I have a free test here that I encourage you to take several times until you are comfortable with the materiel you are expected to know. States generally require that you score 80% or better on the test in order to pass it. Once you pass the test and get your CLP it is valid for 180 days after it was issued to you.

CDL General Knowledge Practice Test

After studying your states CDL manual you should complete my free general knowledge practice test. You can find the free exam here. I encourage you to take the test many times as possible until you are confident that you are prepared for the test. Make sure you are going back into your state manual to find the answers to missed questions.

Studying From State CDL Manuals

Whether you are seeking a Class A, B, or C license there are the specific sections from your state manual that you will need to study in order to pass the CDL general knowledge test. Additional sections may be needed if you are seeking an endorsement. Remember, manuals from all states are generally the same so these sections will apply to you regardless of the state you are in. You can find your states free CDL manual here. Below is an summary of each section you should be reading and studying from.

  • Section 1: Introduction: This section is has general information regarding the CDL. Topics include:
    – Information about who must obtain a CDL
    – Who is exempt from obtaining a CDL
    – Endorsements
    – Information about the CDL general knowledge exam and the skills/driving test
    – Required documents, including the DOT Medical Exam Card
    – Regulations and disqualifications
    – Traffic violations in a personal vehicle
    – Distracted driving
    – Vehicle length, height, and weight restrictions
    – Vehicle lighting


  • Section 2: Driving Safely: This section contains knowledge and safe driving information that every commercial vehicle driver should know. Topics include:
    – Vehicle inspection
    – Basic control of your vehicle
    – Shifting gears
    – Space management
    – Winter driving
    – Mountain driving
    – Fires
    – Driving emergencies
    – Staying alert
    – Accident procedures
    – Braking distance
    – Managing space
    – Driving at night.
    – What to do when you become sleepy


  • Section 3: Transporting Cargo Safely: In this section you will learn about the proper ways to load and secure cargo. Topics include:
    – Inspecting cargo
    – Cargo weight and balance
    – Securing cargo
    – Cargo needing special attention


  • Section 5: Air Brakes: This section focuses on air brakes. If you intend to drive a commercial vehicle with air brakes you will need to study this section as well. Many Class A, B, and C vehicles utilize air brakes. Topics in this section include:
    – Air brake system parts
    – Dual air brake systems
    – Inspecting air brakes
    – Using air brakes


  • Section 6: Combination Vehicles: *This section is for drivers seeking a Class A CDL only. In this section you will learn about combination vehicles such as tractor-trailers, double trailers, triple trailers, and straight trucks with trailers. Section 7 of your state manual should also be reviewed if you are going to drive doubles or triples. Topics include:
    – Driving combinations
    – Combination vehicle air brakes
    – Anti-lock brake systems
    – Coupling and uncoupling
    – Inspecting combinations

CDL Endorsement Tests:

Depending on which kind of commercial vehicle you plan on driving you may be required to take some endorsement tests along with the general knowledge test. I have an article where I explain endorsements in more detail, you can find it here.

What Happens After The General Knowledge Test

Once you have passed the general knowledge test and received your CLP (commercial learner’s permit) you are allowed to practice driving an actual commercial vehicle and begin training for the CDL driving tests. The driving portion of the CDL tests is comprised of three tests; the pre-trip vehicle inspection test, the basic vehicle control skills test, and the road driving test. These tests are conducted at your local DMV facility that is capable of testing CDL drivers. Let’s take a look at each one of them.

CDL Pre-Trip Vehicle Inspection Test

The pre-trip inspection test determines whether or not you know how to inspect your commercial vehicle correctly before driving it. Your job is to make sure that you can demonstrate to an examiner that the vehicle you are driving is safe to drive and that you are familiar with it’s external and internal parts. Also, you are expected to bring the vehicle with you that you will be testing with. You will have an examiner assigned to you and you will be required to walk around the vehicle and point to external and internal parts and explain what you are checking and why you are checking it. Make sure you are very familiar with the vehicle you are going to be driving because the examiner is going to ask you to explain and check different parts during the inspection.

How To Study For Pre-Trip Inspection Exam

There are two ways you can prepare yourself for this exam. The first way is to study Section 12 of your state CDL manual. The second way to study for the pre-trip inspection exam is to watch a video where someone demonstrates the inspection. Let me explain what you need to study and show you a video I recommend you watch.

Study From State CDL Manual for Pre Trip Inspection

This is an outline of the 12th section from the state manual you should be familiar with. These are the internal and external components that the examiner will expect you to identify and describe.

  • Section 12: Pre-trip vehicle inspection test: This section has all you need to know about regarding the vehicle inspection test, topics include the following:
    Engine compartment: hoses, leaks, oil level, coolant level, power steering fluid, engine compartment belts, and safe start
    Cab check/engine start: oil pressure gauge, temperature gauge, air gauge, voltmeter, mirrors and windshield, emergency equipment, steering play, wipers/washers, lights and reflectors, pedals, horn, heater/defroster, parking brake check, air brake check, system leak check, and safety belt
    External inspection: steering box and hoses, steering linkage, springs, mounts, shock absorbers, brakes, brake chambers, brake lines, drum brake, brake linings, wheels, rims, axle seals, lug nuts, and spacers
    Side of vehicle: doors and mirrors, fuel tank, battery/box, drive shaft, exhaust system, and frame
    Rear of vehicle: splash guards, doors, and lifts
    Tractor/Coupling: air/electric lines, catwalk, mounting bolts, hitch release lever, locking jaws,  fifth wheel skid plate, kingpin, apron, gap, locking pins, sliding pintle, draw bar, and tongue storage area
    Trailer front: air/electrical connections and header board
    Trailer side: landing gear, doors, ties, lifts, and frame
    Remainder of trailer: wheels, suspension system, brakes, doors, and splash guards


CDL Pre-Trip Inspection Test Video

To give you an idea of what to expect and what you should know and be able to demonstrate you should put aside some time to watch the pre-trip vehicle inspection video below. It’s a good idea to watch the video several times so that you are comfortable with the inspection process.

CDL Basic Skills Test

Once you have passed the pre-trip inspection test the next test on the list is called the basic vehicle control skills test. The basic skills test is the first test that you will be behind the wheel for. There will once again be an examiner with you during this test that will be scoring your performance. The CDL school where you received your training will prepare you for each of the exercises that you have to complete. These are driving tests on a closed course, not public roads. As always it is a good idea to refer to your states CDl manual for state specific information as well. You can access state manuals here for free.

CDL Basic Skills Test Score Sheet

For the basic skills test there is a scoring system that you need to be aware of, these 4 measures is what your examiner is going to base your final score on. It is vital that you know ahead of time what scoring expectations are so that you are able to focus on these vehicle control skills and pass the test on your first try. You need to know about encroachments, pull-ups, outside vehicle observations, and
final position.

Encroachments: The examiner will score the amount of times you cross over a boundary line with any portion on the vehicle. Each encroachment will count as an error. If you get more than three encroachments on an individual exercise you will fail the test.

Pull-ups: When the driver stops and to get a better direction this is called a pull-up. You are allowed two pull-ups for each exercise except for the straight line backing. During the straight line backing you are only allowed one pull-up. If you use more pull-ups that is allowed for any one exercise you will fail the test.

Outside Vehicle Observations: You are allowed to safely stop and exit the vehicle to check the vehicles position. When you do this be sure to place the vehicle in neutral and set the parking brake. When exiting the vehicle you must be facing the vehicle and maintaining three points of contact with the vehicle at all times. If you don’t safely secure the vehicle or exit the vehicle correctly it may result in a failing score. For each exercise you will be allowed two of these outside vehicle observations except for the straight line backing which you are allowed only one. Be careful and use these wisely because using too many of them means you will fail the basic skills test.

Final Position: It is important that you listen to your examiner and finish each exercise exactly how he/she tells you to. If you don’t finish each exercise in the position the examiner tells you the vehicle should be in you may fail the test. Listen to what the examiner tells you and be sure that your final position is exactly how he/she wants it to be.

Total Points: the maximum number of points for the basic control skills test is 12 points. If you accumulate more than 12 points using the scoring system explained above you will fail the test and will have to retake it at a later date.

Now that you know about the basic skills scoring system let’s take a look at each exercise so that you know what you will be preparing for. You will need to pay attention to the cone layout. This can also be found in your states CDL manual, you can download it for free here.

Basic Skills Test Cone Layout

During this test there are 6 exercises  that you may be asked to demonstrate. Let’s take a look at exercise and the cone layout for each one.

– Straight line backing: Backing your vehicle in a straight line between cones. To get a better idea of what you have to do take a look at diagram below.

Straight Line Backing


– Offset backing/right: In this exercise you will be asked to back into a space that is to the right rear of your vehicle. You will have to drive straight forward and back your vehicle into that space without hitting the side or rear boundary. Also, you will have to completely put your vehicle into the space. Take a moment to study the diagram below so you know what to expect.

Offset Backing Right

-Offset backing/left: This exercise is similar to the previous one except this time you will have to back your vehicle into a space that is to the left rear. You will have to drive straight forward and back your vehicle into the space without hitting any cones.

Offset Backing Left

– Parallel park (Driver Side): To complete this exercise you will have to drive past the parking space on your left and then back into it bringing the rear of your commercial vehicle as close as possible to the rear of the space without crossing the side or rear cones. You will have to be able to put the complete vehicle into the space. Be sure to study the cone layout below for this exercise.

Parallel Park Driver Side

– Parallel Park (Conventional): For this exercise you will have to drive past the parking space on your right and then back into it bringing the rear of the vehicle as close as possible to the rear of the space without crossing the side or rear cones. It is required that your entire vehicle is in the space when you complete this exercise.

Parallel Park Conventional

– Alley Dock: To pass this exercise you will need to be able to sight-side back your vehicle into an alley, bringing the rear of the vehicle as close as possible to the rear of the alley cones without hitting them. Your entire vehicle has to be completely in the alley and it should be straight.

Alley Dock


CDL Road Driving Test

Preparing for the CDL driving test is the final obstacle between you and getting your CDL. The CDL road test is also done with an examiner at your side making sure you are not making any mistakes. Knowing what to expect during the road test and training properly can be the difference between passing and failing. During the road test you should drive as safely as possible, wear your seat belt, obey traffic laws, and complete the test without an accidents or violations. Don’t even think about turning on the radio during the driving test and don’t forget to turn off your cell phone.

During this test the examiner will be scoring you on specific driving maneuvers as well as general driver ability and knowledge. Follow the directions given to you by the examiner exactly like he/she says. Remember, the examiner is the person that is going to decide if you pass or fail the CDL road test.

I always suggest you visit your states CDL manual for specific information regarding any of the CDL tests you are taking. This one is no different, you can get your free CDL manual here. Generally speaking all states have the same federal standards that must be followed regarding the road driving test. Here is an outline of what you can expect during the test and what you should be training for at your CDL school.

  • Section 14: On-Road Driving: The following are the maneuvers you should be able to complete safely during the CDL driving test.
    Turns: You will be asked to make a turn during the test. Some things to be aware of:
    -What to do as you approach the turn
    -What to do if you have to stop in order to make the turn
    -What to do when you are ready to turn
    -Continuing after the turn
  • Intersections: During the driving test you will be asked to approach an intersection. Here is what you need to be aware of:
    – What to do as you approach the intersection
    – When driving through the intersection
    – Once you are through the intersection
  • Lane Changes: During the test you will be asked to change lanes several times. Make sure you make the proper safety checks and use your turn signals.
  • Expressway: You will be asked to enter, drive on, and exit an expressway. Be aware of the following:
    – What to do before entering the expressway
    – How to drive once on the expressway
    – What to do when exiting the expressway
  • Stop/Start: The examiner will ask you to pull your vehicle to the side of the road and stop as thought you are going to exit the vehicle to check something on it. Be sure to use caution when doing this. You should be aware of the following:
    – What to do as you prepare to stop
    – What you should do once you have stopped the vehicle
    – What to do when you are instructed to resume driving
  • Railroad Crossing: At some point of the driving test you will have to pass railroad tracks. This is what you need to know:
    – Make sure you know what do to when you are approaching the railroad crossing.
    – If you are driving a vehicle that is displaying placards be sure you know what is expected of you. It is different than a vehicle that is not displaying placards.
    Note: if the examiner does not have railroad tracks nearby you will be asked to instead describe what you would do if you arrived at a railroad crossing
  • Bridge/Overpass/Sign: After driving under an overpass  you will be asked what the posted maximum height was. Make sure you are reading signs so that you answer correctly. After passing a bridge you will be asked what the posted maximum weight limit was. Be prepared to let the examiner know what it was.
  • Clutch Usage: Be sure to always use the clutch to shift and don’t ride the clutch to control your speed.
  • Gear Usage (manual transmission): Don’t grind or clash gears and don’t shift in turns or intersections.
  • Brake Usage: Don’t ride or pump brake and make sure you are braking smoothly throughout the test.
  • Lane Usage: Don’t go over curbs, cones, sidewalks, or lane markings. Make sure you stop behind stop lines, stop signs, and crosswalks. When possible you should move into the right most lane carefully.
  • Steering: Avoid over and under steer. Also, keep both hands on the steering wheel throughout the test.
  • Regular Traffic Checks: You should be checking traffic regularly through windows and mirrors.
  • Use of Turn Signals: Use the turn signals properly. When needed make sure you activate turn signals and cancel turn signals when they are no longer needed.
  • Updgrade and Downgrade: Make sure to select the proper speed during an upgrade or downgrade and move to the right most lane if possible. Use your four-way flashers if you are moving slower than the traffic around you.

CDL Testing Tips

Now that you know which tests you have to pass in order to get your CDL let’s take a look at what else you can do (other than formal training) to pass all of the tests.

1. Practice CDL tests: One of the best ways to ease the stress of taking the tests is to take some practice tests ahead of time so that you know what to expect the day of the test. You can access all of my free CDL practice tests here and are encouraged to complete them as many times as possible so that the information sinks in. Finally, during your CDL training classes you need to stay focused on your driving so that you are learning as much as possible. Being active during you training will translate into testing success.

2. Study: The best resource that is available to you for the CDL general knowledge test is your state CDL manual. You can access your free CDL manual here. We can’t stress this enough, take the time to read and reread the manual along with our CDL general knowledge practice tests here.

3. Test taking strategies 101: Remember high school multiple choice tests? The general knowledge and endorsement tests is not much different. Go through the multiple choice answers and weed out the ones that you know are not the correct answers until you find the correct one.

4. Refer to your CDL training: Remember the training that you received while you were in CDL school. Think back to how you were trained to drive your commercial vehicle correctly and apply it to the basic skills and road driving test. CDL schools know exactly what you will be tested on and
are really good about preparing drivers to pass each CDL test on the first try.

5. Sleep Well: The night before any of the tests be sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep. Make sure you are rested when you wake up for the day of the test. Eat a good breakfast too!

Completing your CDL training and getting your CDL is a rewarding experience. By passing the required tests, receiving quality training, and good study habits you will be on your way to starting a new and exciting career as a commercial vehicle driver. Congratulations!