What Happens If I Get Caught Driving a Commercial Vehicle and Don't Have a CDL?

Different types of violations related to unlicensed commercial driving and the associated penalties.

Just as driving the family car requires a valid driver's license, the operation of a commercial motor vehicle requires a valid commercial driver's license (CDL). Commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) can include semi-trucks, school buses, or hazardous material transports. Due to the increased dangers of operating these vehicles, the licensing requirements are different from those for normal vehicles. And the penalties for operating a CMV without the proper license are higher than normal unlicensed driving violations. This article outlines when a CDL is required, some of the exemptions, and the penalties for unlicensed operation.

Licensing Requirements and Exceptions for Drivers

Generally, you must hold a valid CDL to operate a commercial motor vehicle in any state. Depending on the size and weight of the vehicle, a driver must hold either a class A, B, or C commercial license.

License classes. There are three classes of CDLs based on the weight of the truck and/or trailer(s).

Combined Weight

Tractor Weight

Trailer(s) Weight

Class A

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

Over 10,000 pounds

Class B

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

10,000 pounds or less

Class C

Under 26,001 pounds

Under 26,001 pounds

10,000 pounds or less

The higher CDL classes encompass the lower classes, meaning that a class A CDL holder can generally operate any size and weight of the vehicle.

Endorsements. For transporting certain cargos, a CDL holder will also need to have the appropriate endorsements. For example, endorsements are required for transporting hazardous materials or passengers.

CDL exceptions. Generally, military vehicles are exempt from state licensing requirements, and farmers are often permitted to drive large machinery on or around their farm without needing a CDL. However, each state has slightly different requirements and exceptions.

Commercial Unlicensed Driving Violations

As previously explained, to operate a commercial vehicle, a driver generally must possess a valid CDL. Also, the CDL must be of the appropriate type and have the correct endorsements for the vehicle the driver is operating.

Unlicensed CMV operation generally involves operating a CMV:

  • without ever having been issued a CDL
  • with the wrong type of CDL or without the correct endorsements
  • with an expired CDL
  • without a CDL in your physical possession (though you are a licensed commercial driver), or
  • after your CDL has been revoked.

The penalties for unlicensed CMV operation vary substantially depending on which of these categories the violation falls under.

Drivers Who Haven't Ever Been Licensed to Operate a Commercial Vehicle

Operating a CMV without ever having been issued a CDL is generally a misdemeanor. A conviction typically carries up to six months in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. The driver will also be prohibited from operating any CMV for 60 to 120 days.

Incorrect Type of CDL or Endorsements

Operating a CMV that exceeds your CDL's weight limit or without the appropriate endorsements is generally treated the same as operating without a CDL (discussed above). A violation is typically a misdemeanor and normally carries up to six months in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. Additionally, the driver won't be allowed to operate a CMV for 60 to 90 days.

Expired Licenses

Operating with an expired CDL is technically unlicensed driving and can lead to the same misdemeanor charges. However, many states have grace periods (30 or so days) during which the driver can apply for renewal and possibly avoid the violation penalties.

Driving Without a License in Your Possession

Federal law requires all commercial drivers to possess a valid CDL on their person while driving. A violation can result in CDL suspension under federal law and various fines under state law. However, drivers who can produce a valid CDL before their court appearance will likely be able to avoid most, if not all, of these penalties.

Driving With a Revoked CDL

Federal law sets out mandatory minimum suspension and revocation periods for certain CDL violations. For example, excessive speeding is considered a "serious offense" and will result in a 60-day or 120-day CDL suspension. Other violations called "major offenses" (like impaired driving) will result in a one-year or lifetime CDL revocation. State laws often mirror federal requirements but may include additional violations that can lead to the loss of CDL privileges.

Criminal penalties. In most situations, driving while suspended and driving while revoked will result in the same penalties—a misdemeanor charge, up to six months in jail, and a maximum of $1,000 in fines.

CDL penalties. As operating a CMV while suspended or revoked is a major offense, a conviction will result in an additional period of CDL revocation. A driver who has no prior major offenses and was suspended for a serious traffic violation will be revoked for one year. But if the driver was revoked due to a major offense or has a prior major offense, the driver's CDL will be permanently revoked. Some states do offer reinstatement programs whereby the driver can reapply for a CDL after ten years.

Just as driving the family car requires a valid driver's license, the operation of a commercial motor vehicle requires a valid commercial driver's license (CDL). Commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) can include semi-trucks, school buses, or hazardous material transports. Due to the increased dangers of operating these vehicles, the licensing requirements are different from those for normal vehicles. And the penalties for operating a CMV without the proper license are higher than normal unlicensed driving violations. This article outlines when a CDL is required, some of the exemptions, and the penalties for unlicensed operation.

Licensing Requirements and Exceptions for Drivers

Generally, you must hold a valid CDL to operate a commercial motor vehicle in any state. Depending on the size and weight of the vehicle, a driver must hold either a class A, B, or C commercial license.

License classes. There are three classes of CDLs based on the weight of the truck and/or trailer(s).

Combined Weight

Tractor Weight

Trailer(s) Weight

Class A

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

Over 10,000 pounds

Class B

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

10,000 pounds or less

Class C

Under 26,001 pounds

Under 26,001 pounds

10,000 pounds or less

The higher CDL classes encompass the lower classes, meaning that a class A CDL holder can generally operate any size and weight of the vehicle.

Endorsements. For transporting certain cargos, a CDL holder will also need to have the appropriate endorsements. For example, endorsements are required for transporting hazardous materials or passengers.

CDL exceptions. Generally, military vehicles are exempt from state licensing requirements, and farmers are often permitted to drive large machinery on or around their farm without needing a CDL. However, each state has slightly different requirements and exceptions.

Commercial Unlicensed Driving Violations

As previously explained, to operate a commercial vehicle, a driver generally must possess a valid CDL. Also, the CDL must be of the appropriate type and have the correct endorsements for the vehicle the driver is operating.

Unlicensed CMV operation generally involves operating a CMV:

  • without ever having been issued a CDL
  • with the wrong type of CDL or without the correct endorsements
  • with an expired CDL
  • without a CDL in your physical possession (though you are a licensed commercial driver), or
  • after your CDL has been revoked.

The penalties for unlicensed CMV operation vary substantially depending on which of these categories the violation falls under.

Drivers Who Haven't Ever Been Licensed to Operate a Commercial Vehicle

Operating a CMV without ever having been issued a CDL is generally a misdemeanor. A conviction typically carries up to six months in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. The driver will also be prohibited from operating any CMV for 60 to 120 days.

Incorrect Type of CDL or Endorsements

Operating a CMV that exceeds your CDL's weight limit or without the appropriate endorsements is generally treated the same as operating without a CDL (discussed above). A violation is typically a misdemeanor and normally carries up to six months in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. Additionally, the driver won't be allowed to operate a CMV for 60 to 90 days.

Expired Licenses

Operating with an expired CDL is technically unlicensed driving and can lead to the same misdemeanor charges. However, many states have grace periods (30 or so days) during which the driver can apply for renewal and possibly avoid the violation penalties.

Driving Without a License in Your Possession

Federal law requires all commercial drivers to possess a valid CDL on their person while driving. A violation can result in CDL suspension under federal law and various fines under state law. However, drivers who can produce a valid CDL before their court appearance will likely be able to avoid most, if not all, of these penalties.

Driving With a Revoked CDL

Federal law sets out mandatory minimum suspension and revocation periods for certain CDL violations. For example, excessive speeding is considered a "serious offense" and will result in a 60-day or 120-day CDL suspension. Other violations called "major offenses" (like impaired driving) will result in a one-year or lifetime CDL revocation. State laws often mirror federal requirements but may include additional violations that can lead to the loss of CDL privileges.

Criminal penalties. In most situations, driving while suspended and driving while revoked will result in the same penalties—a misdemeanor charge, up to six months in jail, and a maximum of $1,000 in fines.

CDL penalties. As operating a CMV while suspended or revoked is a major offense, a conviction will result in an additional period of CDL revocation. A driver who has no prior major offenses and was suspended for a serious traffic violation will be revoked for one year. But if the driver was revoked due to a major offense or has a prior major offense, the driver's CDL will be permanently revoked. Some states do offer reinstatement programs whereby the driver can reapply for a CDL after ten years.

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