Tennessee CDL License: Guide for A Commercial Driver’s License

A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is essential for individuals looking to operate commercial motor vehicles on public roads. Whether you’re in Tennessee or any other part of the United States, the mandate for a CDL ensures the safety of our highways and byways.

This comprehensive guide will delve into the specifics of obtaining a CDL. Armed with facts, stats, and step-by-step processes, you can confidently pursue your goal of becoming a licensed commercial driver in Tennessee.

Commercial Motor Vehicle License

A CDL, or Commercial Driver’s License, is not just another driver’s license—it’s a testament to a driver’s capability to handle large, often complex vehicles on the road.

Like elsewhere, this license is governed by stringent requirements, documents, and qualifications, ensuring that only capable individuals can operate commercial vehicles. This guide will walk you through these intricacies, laying out a clear path to secure your commercial driver’s license.

Type of License for Commercial Vehicles

There are various CDL licenses, each designed to certify a driver’s ability to handle specific types of commercial vehicles. Understanding the significance and details of these licenses is paramount for anyone looking to venture into the commercial driving field.

Class A

A Class A CDL license allows holders to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, provided the towed vehicle is heavier than 10,000 pounds.

Class B

A Class B CDL license permits drivers to operate any single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more or any such vehicle towing another not exceeding 10,000 pounds.

Class C

Class C CDL allows drivers to operate any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver) or hazardous materials, provided it does not fall under Class A or B based on weight specifications.

Class D

Class D is not a type of CDL. It is typically a standard driver’s license for operating personal vehicles and is not designated for commercial motor vehicle operations.

Necessary Documents for Application

Applying for a CDL involves a detailed process, requiring applicants to provide specific documents to verify their identity, background, and eligibility. This process ensures that only qualified individuals get granted a CDL license. We’ll now delve deeper into some of these critical requirements and the documents needed.

Background History Check

For a commercial driver  license, a background history check is crucial. It ensures that applicants have a clean slate, particularly in driving and criminal records, guaranteeing the safety and security of our roads. Key aspects of this check include:

Driving Records: Reviewing the applicant’s past driving history for violations.

Criminal History: Checking for any criminal records that might deem an applicant unfit for a CDL.

Proof of Authorized Citizenship

Validating citizenship or lawful permanent resident status is a pivotal step in the CDL application process. Tennessee requires all applicants to prove their legal status in the country. That ensures that all licensed commercial drivers are compliant with national regulations. Vital documents often required are:

  • Birth Certificate: An original or certified copy is typically accepted.
  • Passport: A U.S. passport can serve as proof of both identity and citizenship.
  • Certificate of Naturalization or Citizenship: For those who’ve become U.S. citizens through naturalization processes.

Proof of Authorized Permanent Residence

Obtaining a CDL requires verification of one’s permanent resident status for non-U.S. citizens. This step is vital to ensure only those with legal rights to stay and work in the country are given the privilege of operating a commercial vehicle. Key documents include:

  • Permanent Resident Card (Green Card): Proof that the holder can legally live and work in the U.S.
  • Resident Alien Card: An older version of the Green Card, also accepted as evidence.

Domicile Requirements

Proving domicile, or permanent residency within Tennessee, is essential to obtain a license. That guarantees that the applicant has a vested interest in the state and intends to be a long-term resident. Important proofs are:

  • Utility Bills: Water, electricity, or phone bills can prove one’s domicile.
  • Lease Agreement: Valid contract showcasing rental or ownership within Tennessee.

Relationship Documents

While typically not a primary requirement, some applications or situations might necessitate validating familial or marital relationships, especially when considering next-of-kin or emergency contacts. Essential documents are:

  • Marriage Certificate: For those citing a spouse as an emergency contact.
  • Birth Certificates of Dependents: To validate parental relationships.

Steps for a CDL Learner’s Permit

Before earning a full license, one typically starts with a CDL learner’s permit. This permit allows an individual to practice driving a commercial vehicle under the supervision of a licensed CDL holder. Critical steps include:

  • Application Submission: Completing the required forms and documentation.
  • General Knowledge Test: Testing understanding of basic commercial driving concepts.
  • Medical Examination: Ensuring one’s physical fitness to drive a commercial vehicle.

Commercial Driver’s License General Knowledge Testing

Applicants must prove their understanding of essential road safety concepts and commercial vehicle operations by passing the CDL general knowledge test. This exam covers a variety of topics to ensure well-rounded knowledge:

  • Road Safety: Understanding safe driving practices and rules.
  • Vehicle Operations: Knowledge of how to handle commercial vehicles in various scenarios.
  • Traffic Signs and Signals: Recognizing and interpreting standard traffic indications.

Scheduling a CDL Skills Test

Once the general knowledge test gets cleared and one is deemed ready, the next step is the practical demonstration through the skills test or knowledge test. There are license classes that can help you study for the test. That assesses an individual’s capability to operate a commercial vehicle:

  • Pre-trip Inspection: Demonstrating knowledge of vehicle components and safety checks.

Maneuverability: Successfully navigating the vehicle through designated paths.

  • On-Road Testing: Evaluating the driver’s skills in real-world traffic scenarios.

List of Disqualifications

Certain conditions or past actions can disqualify an applicant from obtaining a commercial license. It’s essential to be aware of these factors to ensure a smooth application process:

  • Previous DUI Convictions: Demonstrating a history of impaired driving.
  • Major Traffic Violations: Such as hit-and-run incidents.
  • Repeated Minor Violations: Reflecting a pattern of unsafe driving behavior.
  • CDL Valid DOT Medical Card and Certification Requirements

Securing a valid DOT medical card ensures that all commercial drivers are physically fit, minimizing risks on the road. This card is proof of meeting the health criteria set by the Department of Transportation.

Self Certification

Self-certification is a declaration by CDL applicants about the type of commercial vehicle operations they intend to engage with. This process aids in determining which medical and operating standards apply.

A crucial aspect of the DOT medical examination is the hearing test, ensuring drivers can perceive auditory signals on the road. Drivers must perceive a forced whisper at a minimum distance of 5 feet. They also cannot use hearing aids. 

Clear vision is imperative for CDL drivers. The DOT medical examination tests for:

Distance Vision: At least 20/40 acuity in each eye, with or without correction.

Field of Vision: At least 70° in the horizontal Meridian of each eye.

Color Recognition: Ability to distinguish between traffic light colors.

Blood Pressure Requirements

Maintaining an optimal blood pressure level is crucial for CDL applicants, ensuring safe vehicle operation and minimizing health risks on the road:

Blood pressure should ideally be below 140/90 mmHg. Those with readings between 140/90 and 159/99 mmHg might receive a one-year certification. Ideally, applicants should have a blood pressure reading below 140/90 mmHg.

Regular check-ups are advised, as high readings may require medical intervention and potentially impact licensing.

Urinalysis Testing

A urinalysis test is part of the DOT physical examination to check for medical conditions or drug use. 

To identify underlying health issues such as diabetes or kidney disorders. Potential illicit drug use also gets screened for during this test. Identifying potential health issues such as high glucose levels can indicate conditions like diabetes.

This test is a routine part of the CDL medical exam, ensuring drivers are fit for the road.

Physical Impairments

Physical impairments get evaluated to ensure drivers can perform necessary driving tasks safely. That might include muscle strength, mobility, and overall physical health evaluations.

Muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance might get evaluated. In some cases, appropriate adjustments or restrictions may get made based on a driver’s physical condition.

Getting a Commercial Driver License Manual

Acquiring a Commercial Driver License Manual is essential for preparing for the CDL tests. This manual is available online or at local DMV offices throughout Tennessee.

Most individuals prefer downloading the manual online for easy accessibility. Ensure you have the latest version, as regulations and guidelines might change.

Cost of Application and Permit

The fees for an application and permit can vary. Comprehensive fee structures and payment methods are available on the Tennessee Department of Safety‘s website.

Prices might change based on endorsements or additional certifications. Periodic license renewals might come with their own fees— always check the latest fee structure.


Certain groups in Tennessee can be exempted from specific CDL requirements due to the nature of their service.

Tennessee Military Vehicle Operators:

Military personnel operating military vehicles for official duty are exempt from standard licensing.

Farm Equipment Operators:

Individuals operating farm machinery within 150 miles of their farm don’t require a CDL.

Firefighting Equipment Operators:

Firefighters operating firefighting vehicles during emergencies or official duties are exempted from standard CDL requirements.

Recreational Vehicle Operators

Persons driving recreational vehicles for personal use are not required to have a CDL.

Township or Government Workers Exemptions:

Local government employees operating vehicles for municipal tasks may be exempted from CDL requirements.

The exemption typically applies to specific roles and vehicle types. That does not mean they can operate all commercial vehicles without a CDL.


Do you have questions about the process? Here are some quick answers.

How long does it take to get a CDL license?  

Depending on test scheduling and documentation, It generally takes 2-6 weeks.

What do you need a CDL license for?  

A CDL is needed for operating commercial motor vehicles, such as large trucks and buses. A school bus driver would also need a CDL.

What is the new CDL law for?  

Please refer to the Tennessee Department of Safety’s website for the latest CDL regulations.

Do you have to go to school to get your commercial license?  

No, but training schools can help applicants prepare effectively for CDL tests.

These schools offer a structured environment to learn, practice, and understand commercial driving nuances. Many schools also provide preparation for the CDL tests, improving chances of success.


Securing a license involves understanding the varied requirements, from physical health assessments to skill and knowledge tests. With the right resources and preparations, such as the Commercial Driver License Manual, Tennessee residents can confidently pursue a career in operating commercial motor vehicles.