CDL vs Non-CDL Drivers Licenses: What You Need to Know Before Driving an RV

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You’ve found your dream RV. You stepped into it at the latest RV show: a heavy-duty, triple axle, fifth-wheel RV.

It’s big enough for your family, with a cushy entertainment space and a loft for the kids to sleep in. But what really stole your heart was the extending porch and the garage space to haul your four-wheelers in the back. 

Here’s the catch…

Now, you need to figure out what it will take to haul that bad boy. Do you need a commercial driver’s license (CDL), a permit, and/or an endorsement on your non-commercial driver’s license?

And even if it’s not required, are there advantages to getting a CDL vs. non-CDL driver’s license? Do you have to go to a truck driving school to get your CDL? And if you do get your CDL to drive your RV, could you also use it for other employment opportunities?

Let’s answer:

  • What is a CDL? 
  • When do you need it? 
  • What can you use it for? 
  • And how to get your CDL?

What is a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License)?

CDL drivers can drive vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating over 26,000 lbs (https://unsplash.com/photos/ki19VJAGh6w)

A Commercial Driver’s License (or CDL) is required for operating commercial motor vehicles. You need a CDL when you are…

  • Transporting over 15 passengers
  • Tractor trailers
  • Hazardous materials
  • Commercial size buses
  • Towing double trailers
  • And sometimes, when operating RVs over 26,000 lbs or longer than 45 ft.

Having a CDL license allows you to operate buses, tractor-trailers, and – more relevant for you – RVs that exceed a certain weight maximum.

Typically, a CDL is required for those who wish to operate a large commercial vehicle for business-related purposes, such as cargo truck drivers, heavy equipment haulers, truck driving instructors, and professional bus drivers.

Any commercial vehicle that weighs more than 26,000 pounds requires a CDL. However, there are some exceptions for recreational vehicles, all depending on your state of residence.

To obtain a commercial driver’s license, drivers must be at least 18 years old. However, if the vehicle transports hazardous materials or is used for towing, the driver must be a minimum of 21 years old.

For the states that do require a CDL for recreational vehicles weighing in over 26k lbs, you’ll want to look into the Class A or Class B commercial licenses. With a Class A license, you can operate either an RV over 26,000 lbs or a travel trailer exceeding 10,000 lbs.

Compared to a non-CDL license, obtaining a CDL license requires more specialized training, testing, and medical clearances.

What Is a Non-CDL?

A non-CDL license is a standard driver’s license that the DMV issues after you’ve taken a written and practical driver’s test. You can get a learner’s permit as young as 15 years old and a license when you’re 16 years old if you pass the tests. 

Pro Tip: While most states don’t require you to have a commercial driver’s license to drive an RV, some require special endorsements on your driver’s license. But RV Laws can also change, so check in with the DMV in your state to get up-to-date requirements. 

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Do I Need a CDL to Drive an RV?

No, you don’t need a CDL to drive most RVs. In fact, you can drive the vast majority of RVs with a good, old, non-CDL license. 

The RVs that tend to exceed the 26,000 lbs breaking point are Class A RVs like luxury travel buses and toy haulers.  

The only states you need a CDL for are:

  1. Hawaii and Washington DC if it’s over 26,000 lbs
  2. Indiana and Wisconsin, if it’s longer than 45 feet

All the other states allow you to drive your RV without a CDL, but they may have other licensing requirements

5 Key Differences between CDL and Non-CDL Licenses

If you’re leaning toward buying a large Class A RV that may require a CDL, then you’ll need to understand the differences between commercial and non-commercial driver’s licenses. The key differences between CDL and non-CDL licenses boil down to this:

Earning a CDL involves a more in-depth screening process that tests your ability to drive, maneuver, and park large commercial vehicles safely. For many, getting your CDL is an investment because it’s assumed you’re using it for commercial purposes. 

The Type of Vehicle that You Can Drive

    Having a CDL opens up a world of driving opportunities. With a CDL in tow, there’s a number of vehicles you’ll be qualified to drive, ranging from tractor-trailers to luxury buses. These vehicles offer unique driving challenges and responsibilities, which is why you need to cultivate the knowledge and skills to safely operate these large-scale vehicles. 

    The Skills and Knowledge Required

      While employers like their drivers to complete official CDL training, you’re not required by law to do so. 

      However, for safety’s sake, you’ll want to possess basic knowledge on how to drive a longer, heavier, and bulkier vehicle, along with hours of first-hand experience driving these larger commercial or recreational vehicles.

      Remember, these larger vehicles drive differently than standard vehicles. They use air brakes, have bigger blind spots, and are governed by different laws. So invest in your safety, and take the time to learn these nuances.

      Now, if you’re retired or active military and have two years of experience driving large vehicles or buses, you don’t have to take the CDL test. Your service training is sufficient.  

      If you don’t fall in either category and, therefore, aren’t exempt from the CDL test, brace yourself. The CDL driving test is no joke.

      The Driving Test

        The CDL driving test is a 2-hour test that grades your ability to control, drive, and inspect your vehicle safely. 

        As part of your assessment, you’ll need to back up, do quick stops, and perform three-point turns. But also be ready to drive steep inclines and traverse bridges. In a vehicle that’s over 40 feet long, that’s no small feat. So make sure you practice.

        The Renewal Process

          The DMV informs you when it’s time to renew. Unlike your state’s driver’s license that you renew every year, your CDL only needs renewing every five to eight years depending on your state. 

          It also requires more than a driver’s license renewal. It takes a trip to the DMV where you’ll need to show proof of insurance, residency, work eligibility, and a current medical report.

          And then you can pay the fees, of course.

          The Cost

            If you choose to take a course, then your CDL can cost between $1,000-$8,000, depending on where you choose to attend.

            Renewal fees vary by state but are generally less than $100.

            Without the course, you can expect to pay around $200 or less depending on your state. So yes, you could save some money by skipping the CDL coursework, but ask yourself, could you safely drive a class A RV without training? Is it worth taking that risk?

            Only you know your abilities, so make a safe choice for you and your family. 

            Can I Use my CDL for More than Driving my RV?

            Absolutely! Once you get your CDL, you’re clear to drive any size vehicle, but depending on your state, you may need to apply for a special endorsement to carry things like hazardous materials or oversized loads. 

            Summary

            Whether you use your CDL to drive your RV or launch a new career, driving or towing large loads and vehicles comes with unique challenges and responsibilities. Be sure you have the know-how to operate the vehicle safely. 

            Now, when you finally do drive that heavy-duty fifth wheel off the lot, you also want a place to store it safely, out of the elements. Covered storage is always preferred to mitigate the risk of roof damage, but you also would like a place that’s close by. 

            Neighbor.com is a peer-to-peer storage marketplace that allows neighbors to rent space from neighbors close by.

            Finally, state laws are always changing, so for the most up-to-date information, visit your state’s DMV website. 

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