If you wish to become a truck driver but are unsure of how to get into trucking, there are some things you should know about the process.
It’s important to start your new career on the right foot.
So here’s the good news. The steps you’ll need to take to get a CDL are pretty straightforward.
Getting the ‘early steps’ right is critical.
If you don’t get some things right, like picking the wrong driver training school, it could delay or even jeopardize getting your truck driving license.
Here, we’ll give you all the steps to get a Class A CDL, from start to finish, so you can get behind the wheel of a truck to pursue that truck driving career you’re after!
How To Become a Truck Driver in the U.S.
5 Things You’ll Need To Become a Truck Driver (In a Nutshell)
- You’ll need to possess a license to drive a car
- Write and successfully pass the FMCSA exam, plus medical tests
- Write and pass a test to obtain the CDL Learners’ Permit ( needed for initial training )
- Do the CDL exam and obtain your truck driving license
- Get driving experience when you have your CDL, in order to secure a job
Other than having a driver’s license for a car, the training school you choose will provide the means to complete all of the above.
What Does a Truck Driver Do?
Truck drivers provide an essential service — transporting goods from location to location.
Some drivers travel locally each day, while long-haul truck drivers move across the country for days or even weeks at a time. Some drivers are responsible for handling parcels, while others transport heavy machinery or hazardous materials.
If you are looking at how to become a truck driver, it is important to know the different types of commercial driver’s license (CDL).
Class A — Class A vehicles have a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 26,001+ lb. A vehicle in tow (trailer) must be greater than 10,000 lb.
Semi truck + trailer combo (van, temperature-controlled trailer)
Semi truck + tanker trailer
Semi truck + livestock trailer (typically known as a Bull Hauler)
Semi truck + flatbed trailer
Most Class B + Class C vehicles (according to what special endorsements are required)
Class B — Class B vehicles have a GVW of 26,001+ lb.
Various box trucks
Dump trucks with small trailers
Some Class C configurations if the driver has the special endorsements required.
Class C — Single vehicle with GVW under 26,0001 lb. or a vehicle pulling a trailer under 10,000 lb, or carries 16+ passengers with driver
Getting Your CDL – The 10 Steps To Become a Class A Driver
Before jumping in it’s important to note that individual states are responsible for issuing CDL’s, not the federal government.
In most states students are required to attend and graduate from a legitimate truck driving school.
In others, they’re able to get their CDL on their own as long as they’re eligible and pass the necessary tests.
We’ve already established that you’re determined to shoot for the stars and get your Class A CDL, let’s take a closer look at each step.
1. Determine Your Eligibility – What Are the Requirements to Become a Truck Driver
If you’re between the ages of 18 and 21, you can get a CDL.
You can also operate a commercial vehicle outside your home state as of your 21st birthday.
You’ll also need a physical and DOT medical card from an examiner on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSR) national registry.
You can find qualified examiners here.
Each prospective commercial driver must also provide the following documentation to prove their identity, state of residency, Social Security number, and driver’s history:
- Birth certificate
- Driver’s license
- Social Security card
- Utility bill
- Copy of MVR
If you’ll be attending an out-of-state truck driving school, you’ll need to ask your recruiter if there are any residency requirements for students in that state.
Keep in mind that while a high school diploma or GED is not one of the driver requirements to receive your CDL license, some employers will require this to be considered for the job.
2. Address Issues That Could Prevent You From Getting Your CDL
Even if you meet the above eligibility requirements, there are several items that could derail your plans of getting your CDL.
- Certain prescription medications
- Medical conditions like sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and diabetes
- Physical handicaps like missing fingers, toes, or limbs
- Serious criminal offenses like drunk or reckless driving charges
- Felony convictions for arson, kidnapping, and extortion
For those with the aforementioned medical conditions and physical disabilities, it may be possible to obtain a written waiver from a physician stating that your conditions won’t prevent you from operating a commercial vehicle safely.
Even for those with checkered pasts, a felony conviction may not be the end of the road.
Drug tests aren’t part of the process of getting a CDL. But they are required when applying for a job as a commercial driver.
Once you’re hired, you’ll be subject to random drug testing. In addition, if you are involved in an accident, it is mandatory you are drug tested as well.
Many carriers also frequently test drivers who’ve just come back on duty from vacation or short breaks at home, so casual drug use almost always catches up with you.
Many new drivers take the ‘it won’t happen to me’ approach regarding drug testing.
It’s dumb to invest thousands of dollars and months of your time in getting a CDL, to throw it all away for a little casual (and illegal) recreation.
Nancy Reagan had it right all those years ago.
When it comes to drugs, JUST SAY NO.
3. Enroll in a Quality Truck Driving School
CDL truck driving schools come in all shapes and sizes.
They range from:
- Private training academies and community college programs with dedicated instructors and excellent courses
- To giant CDL driver mills run by mega carriers, many of which churn out minimally qualified steering wheel holders by the truckload.
So choosing a reputable school is important.
4. Get a Copy of the CDL Manual (For Your State)
Though they’re pretty standardized these days, CDL study manuals do vary slightly from state to state. Get a manual from the state where you’ll do your training and testing.
You can pick up a hard copy at the DMV or download a PDF to your computer.
If you do the latter, you may want to print a copy to make studying easier.
If you’ll be attending an out-of-state school, they may be able to email you a link to the manual they use during training.
5. Complete a CDL Learner’s Permit Application
Students may complete a learner’s permit application online, in person, or at the truck driving school they’re attending.
In addition to the aforementioned documents, students will also need:
- A copy of MVR, including complete driving history from all 50 states and Washington DC
- Your home address
- A current driver’s license and information on licenses you’ve had from other states
- Alternate proof of identification like a passport, credit card, or Social Security card
Students may need to pay the application fee individually if it hasn’t already been included in the cost of tuition.
If possible, it’s always a good idea to fill out your application while at driving school.
They’ll likely have staff familiar with the process, and they can help you with any items you’re missing or are unsure of.
6. Take the CDL General Knowledge Test
After applying and paying for your learner’s permit, you’ll need to pass a general knowledge test.
If you’ve dedicated enough time to studying, you shouldn’t have any problems.
7. Learn, Practice, and Study
FMCSA rules state that during their training, students must practice driving with a qualified CDL holder instructing them from the passenger seat.
Private and company-sponsored driver training programs are staffed with instructors. But if you’re in a state that doesn’t require formal schooling, you’ll need to find a qualified teacher on your own.
Though actual driving time is definitely more exciting, in-classroom learning is just as important.
The classroom portion of training typically lasts about 300 hours in addition to onsite driving and maneuvering practice conducted on public roads.
8. Take the Final CDL Tests
To get your CDL and join the ranks of commercial drivers, you’ll need to take what you’ve learned on the road and in the classroom and pass these final tests:
- A Vehicle Inspection (Pre-trip Inspection) Test—includes checking things like the engine compartment, tires, suspension, braking system and coupling devices on combination units
- A Basic Controls Test—includes straight line and offset backing, parallel parking, and alley docking
- A Road Test—a driving instructor will evaluate the student’s awareness, overall command of the vehicle, use of mirrors and turn signals, and ability to brake and accelerate normally
- Endorsements – There are some endorsements you can get as well, to increase your opportunities in the trucking industry. (HazMat, Twic Card to name a few)
See our Professional Truck Driver Skills section to reference procedure for some maneuvers.
Remember, you’ll need to have your learner’s permit for at least two weeks before you’ll be permitted to take the final tests.
If you’re attending a school, they’ll schedule the necessary appointments and make sure you have access to the correct vehicle for the class of license you’re getting.
If you’re going for your Class A CDL, you must take the test in a combination vehicle—not a dump truck or a school bus.
For those who are getting your CDL on their own, you’ll need to take care of both of these steps.
Some states may provide test vehicles, so ask before scheduling your appointments.
9. Get Your CDL (And What To Do if You Don’t Pass on the 1st Try)
After passing your final CDL tests with flying colors, you’ll be issued a physical copy of your new license.
If anxiety, pre-test jitters, or a lack of studying kept you from passing, you’ll be able to retake the tests again after a short waiting period.
Be sure to ask about your school’s retesting policy regarding fees and waiting times between retests.
Some offer unlimited free tries until you pass. Others may have additional charges for each attempt after the first test.
10. Getting a Truck Driving Job
Once you have your CDL, you’ll need a job!
If you are in a paid CDL training program, you will have an automatic job placement as a truck driver.
If you have completed the program successfully at a private truck driver training school, the school may have a placement program with some select trucking companies.
Otherwise, you’ll need to start your job search if you haven’t already.
There are trucking companies that will train those who possess a CDL, in one of their finishing and training programs.
Typically these programs last from about 2-4 weeks, maybe longer. These are great introductory training programs for your new carrier. They will teach you things you probably didn’t learn in your formal school training.
Your Truck Driver Training Options – A Decision to Be Taken Seriously
There are actually 4 ways to become a truck driver and get your CDL.
It really DEPENDS on you as an individual which of the options will work best for you.
Once you’ve decided which of the training options you are going after:
- Contact the school or program of your choice.
- Ask tons and tons of questions.
- Arrange for a tour of the school to see the facilities and get a feel for the integrity of the school.
- Take home any information they supply you with and review it carefully before choosing a school. The future of your driving career depends heavily on making a good choice of schools.
Compare your findings on the various schools and programs to pick the best CDL school to suit your needs. Your future professional truck driving career depends on it.
The Importance of Choosing the Right CDL School
I cannot stress the importance of choosing the right CDL school enough.
In order to get your truck driving career started off on the right foot, it’s critical that you choose the right type of CDL training that suits YOU.
- You can be a truck driver in as little as a few weeks time or the training program can take up to a year, depending on the training program you choose. But you may not have the time to spare, so getting your CDL asap may be in order.
- Maybe you don’t have the extra money to invest in costly tuition for a training school, nor do you qualify for any financial aid.
- Maybe the location of the school is an important factor for you for personal reasons.
- Or perhaps you need an income sooner rather than later, and you need that CDL in your hands like NOW.
So here’s the deal.
It’s critical to pick the right training program to suit YOU and your needs.
You need to know:
- How much time you want to spend in a training school.
- How much money you have to spend on training.
- Where you wish to attend training.
- How quickly you wish to get behind the wheel as a qualified CDL driver.
THEN, you’ll need to choose one of the types of training available.
Look at these 3 basic training types and decide which will suit YOUR needs.
1. Private CDL Schools
There are tuition costs that vary from school to school.
Count on at least a few thousand dollars. Usually, the tuition fees are paid upfront for this type of professional driver training. If you have the funds to pay for your truck driver training, then this type of program may be attractive to you.
Programs are typically anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, again depending on the individual schools.
There are programs available that provide financial support for school costs.
There is a multitude of private CDL driver training schools to choose from in most areas of the US.
A student can enroll in a program at almost any time, to complete a program, so the waiting time to get into a program should be minimal. You should be able to have a CDL in your hand in a relatively short period of time, if this is important to you.
Most reputable schools have a driving job placement program with truck companies, where the trucking company will offer you a job upon completion of your CDL at the end of the training session.
Note: Not all schools do this. Also, sometimes the carriers the school is affiliated with are not reputable companies where you would wish to work.
Tip: Look for a school that is accredited for CDL training to be sure they are offering a credible, quality course.
If you need to find a driving job after getting your license, you can find some ways to do just that: How to Land Truck Driving Jobs With No Experience.
2. Paid CDL Training + a Job
These programs are also commonly called:
- Company Sponsored CDL Training
- Free CDL Truck Driver Training
- Company Sponsored CDL Training Schools
A company sponsored CDL training school program is a popular choice by drivers who do not wish to shell out money for their training.
It is, for this reason, this type of truck driver training is particularly attractive to those wishing to become a truck driver.
There will be some costs for the student in this type of training, but the costs will be very minimal.
These programs are offered by large trucking companies which will train students to obtain their CDL in exchange for a commitment to remain employed as a truck driver with the company for a specific time period, usually one year.
If the contract is broken by the trainee, they will be obligated to pay back the company for the training costs.
Wages are typically low during the first year of employment. So the free CDL training or low costs to the student are more than made up for by the trucking company in that first year of employment.
Training for this type of program is offered frequently and is ongoing.
Programs are typically short, a few weeks or so in length. A student can obtain a CDL in a relatively short period of time, but then is under a contractual agreement for the next year or so with that company.
The greatest advantage to company training is the fact that the trucking company will give the student a truck-driving job at the end of the CDL training. This is an important factor as many carriers will not hire a truck driver without any job experience.
These programs are offered in many areas of the U.S. Many of the training centers offer special accommodations for out-of-town students.
But keep in mind, as a student, you may be responsible for the cost of your transportation to and from the program (depending on the program).
The following are just some of the company-sponsored CDL schools where you can find more complete information on their programs.
3. Community College CDL Training
There are tuition fees for these programs; however, Community college CDL training programs are another option where various funding programs are available to prospective students.
Programs typically start only a few times a year, so it may be a while before the next program commences.
Often the training is scheduled at a much slower pace than most private CDL schools.
This can be an advantage to those students who can only attend on a part-time basis or in the evening, as they are already holding a full-time job.
It could be a while before a student actually graduates with their CDL. If you aren’t in a big rush to get your CDL, a community college program can be a good choice.
4. Getting Your CDL On Your Own
It is possible in some states to get your CDL without attending a formal CDL training program.
However, there are motions in the U.S. to eliminate this method completely.
Check with your state for current rulings.
Financial Help for CDL Programs
CDL programs can get expensive. Fortunately there are resources available to those who need financial assistance.
Company Training Programs
Some truck driving companies offer their own CDL training programs. This is a cost-friendly alternative to private CDL schools.
Once employed, some companies deduct a portion from your paycheck until the “cost” of the program has been paid back. Other companies may charge for their program, but reimburse the cost of the program after staying with the company for “X” amount of time. Some companies that do this include TMC Transportation, C.R. England, and Swift Transportation.
Grants are a type of fundinding provided by the government that, in most cases, does not need repaid. Two grants that can benefit CDL drivers in training are:
- Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) — This grant aims to support workers over 18 who have lost their job. It can provide partial to full coverage of your program.
- Federal Pell Grant — Eligibility for this grant is determined by FAFSA. Undergraduate students can fill out the application to see how much they may be approved for. The annual application deadline is June 30.
Only about 24% of transportation jobs are held by women. Scholarships like the “Woman in Trucking Foundation Scholarship” aim to support women in this underrepresented field. Women looking to get their CDL license can apply for up to $1,000 towards their training.
Private CDL Schools vs Paid CDL Training — Which Is Better?
Choosing a reputable driver training school may be the biggest choice of your new driving career.
If you’re near a private CDL school or community college that offers CDL training and would rather not spend months away from your family living in a cheap hotel with another student (and possibly bed bugs!), this may be the best bet (if you can afford it.)
They also typically have the best programs and teachers. Of course, there are lots of high-quality private schools out there as well, but some have less than stellar reputations.
Some company-sponsored CDL schools have horrible reputations for churning out unqualified drivers.
Some of them require students to work for them for very low pay for a year or more after graduating to pay for their tuition.
So the key is to DO YOUR RESEARCH ON THESE TRAINING PROGRAMS!
Important Things To Consider When Choosing a CDL School
- Are they local or ut of state?
- If out of state, are lodging, food, and transportation included?
- Do they offer fin ncing or other payment options?
- If they’re a paid CDL training school, will you be required to drive for them after graduati n?
- If so, and you complete your mandatory employment period, will tuition be waived?
- Are the learner’s permit application and license fees included in tuition, or will you need to pay for them separately?
Don’t just pick the school with the coolest website and the shiniest trucks.
Take your time and research each school thoroughly.
Why Become a Truck Driver?
In short, a truck driving career can be a lucrative career, if you make carefully thought out decisions.
Professional driver pay ranges depend on the type of truck driving job you work at as well where you work. Typically, some states pay more on average than others.
There are plenty of truck driving jobs all over the U.S. There is a serious truck driver shortage in the U.S., which continues to grow. So there is no need to be concerned about lack of work if you’ve decided to become a truck driver.
You should not have any issues getting a truck driving job. The secret is to get good training, practice your skills and look carefully for the right driving job with a reputable company.
Why Get a CDL License?
Driving can be a rewarding career that offers abundant, recession-proof job opportunities and the ability to see parts of the country that most only dream of.
Qualified drivers are usually in short supply too, which means stability and advancement possibilities for safe, experienced truckers.
On the other hand, trucking can be lonely, stressful, and hard on families.
But despite the downsides, attending a truck driving school can be a great investment in your future.
How Can I Pay For My CDL Training?
If you attend one of the company-sponsored training schools, most, if not all, of your costs are covered (although the obligations are plentiful!).
Here are some of the options available to you, to pay for your truck driver training: 10 Ways to Pay For Your CDL Training.
F.A.Q. – How To Become a Truck Driver
For those who are determined to become a truck driver, yes it is worth it. There are many perks to a truck driving career. There is currently a truck driver shortage in North America. Predictions are this will continue for many years to come, so truck driving jobs are plentiful. It is possible to live most anywhere in North America and still be able to utilize your CDL to get a job as a truck driver. Pay has been improving recently, making a driving job more appealing.
The Class A CDL, rather than the other classes of licenses, is the top choice as it allows the holder greater choice of jobs and more flexibility.
The greatest time commitment when getting a CDL is the training. The training lasts anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on whether the trainee has chosen a company-sponsored school (a few weeks), a private CDL school (a few weeks-6 weeks approximately), or a Community College training program (could be several months). Each program is different.
A truck driver’s salary is dependent on multiple factors, including the type of license they hold, years of experience, and the company they work for. According to Glassdoor’s 2022 reported data, the average yearly salary for drivers includes:
New drivers — $51,894
4-6 years experience — $57,290
10-14 years — $63,382
15+ years — $68,021
Truck driving schools typically start at about $3,000, but depending on the school, could run up to $10,000 or more depending on the program.
Yes — online refresher training courses do exist. But students must still be tested for their actual Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) at a designated testing center.
How To Become a Truck Driver — The Bottom Line
Truck Drivers undergo rigorous training to ensure they are prepared to safely and effectively drive on the road. Truck driver jobs require extensive study— from independent research for the initial knowledge test to practical on-road training for the final CDL test.
If becoming a truck driver is right for you, start off strong with a reputable truck driving program that will provide you with the skills required for the road ahead. Anticipate and prepare for the upfront costs of your Class A CDL program and maintain a clean driving record. With the proper training and enough practice, you can be on your way to getting your CDL.