The Type of License You Need to Drive a Cargo Van

Federal law allows you to drive cargo vans with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of less than 26,000lbs and less than 11 passengers with a regular car license. So most cargo vans can be driven with a regular license, but individual State laws may be different, so check them for your State.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

GVWR stands for Gross Vehicle Weight Rating and is the total weight of a vehicle plus its payload. Even with their maximum payload most cargo vans have a GVWR below 26,000lbs and so do not need the driver to have a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) to drive them.

You can find out the GVWR of a vehicle by looking for the vehicle information panel on one of the front doors.

Open the door and look for a metal plate located on the door jam. If it does not actually state the GVWR, then it will state the maximum axle weights for each axle. You can work out the GVWR by adding together both the individual axle weights.

Although no State can make individual laws that exceed the Federal law, they can make their own laws more restrictive, such as a lower GVWR.


Commercial Vehicles

Whilst many States consider a commercial vehicle to be one which has over 26,000lbs GVWR, some States consider any vehicle used for commercial purposes to be a commercial vehicle, regardless of GVWR.

In these instances, one of the factors determining if a cargo van is a commercial vehicle or not is if it has advertising on its side panels or not.


Cargo Van Rentals

Cargo vans are becoming increasingly popular as rental vehicles. Even if a rental company is in a State which does not require a cargo van driver to have a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License), individual company policies may require it.

Cargo vans are becoming popular as rental vehicles as they:

  1. Often have sufficient capacity to hold furniture when moving apartments or even moving from a small home.
  2. A regular van does not need a CDL to drive, eliminating the need to hire a professional driver.
  3. Provide access to the cargo section from the cab and a side door as well as their rear doors, so they can be loaded with just the assistance of a friend.

If you are moving interstate though remember to check license requirements in both the State you are moving to and the State you are moving from.


Extra Care When Driving

Although you may not need a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) to drive a cargo van, that does not mean they are exactly the same to drive as a car, so extra care is needed when driving them.

Some people compare driving a cargo van to driving a large SUV but regardless of what some people think, you should remember a cargo van is still a van.

It may be more compact than larger box vans, but a cargo van can still be subject to the same problems as driving the larger box vans.

These potential problems:

  1. Blind spots due to a cargo van not having rear windows. This means that you cannot use a rear view mirror and so have to rely only on your side mirrors. For this reason, as with a box van, you should seek assistance when reversing.
  2. Due to their shape,  they can be more susceptible to being affected by strong winds, especially when empty.
  3. When a cargo van is loaded, a cargo van will be heavier than most cars and so therefore need more space for braking.

For these reasons it is always recommended to drive a cargo van slower than you might a regular car.


Federal and State Driving Laws

While any changes in Federal driving laws may be well published, that is not always the case with individual State driving regulations, especially outside that particular State.

This means that while some information may be accurate today, it may not be at the time you plan on traveling. Therefore, you should always check current licensing regulations prior to traveling cross country or even from just one State to the next.

Many States abide by Federal regulations regarding the need for a driver to have a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License).

Some states however may make their own regulations as to when one is needed.

The States which differ from Federal regulations may consider all cargo vans to be commercial vehicles while others only consider them to be under certain circumstances.

In the States which only consider cargo vans as commercial vehicles under certain circumstances, those circumstances may include:

  • Advertising on the side panels of the van
  • Actually being used for commercial purposes
  • Carrying of livestock or chemicals

This information for individual States is not always easy to find or easy to interpret, so is often in the hands of the police or transport officer involved in any stop.

An example of this is that a police officer may consider the transportation of a pet in a cargo van to a pet show which has monetary prizes as a commercial venture.

In many instances, it may be the insurance company that helps you determine which license you need to drive your cargo van. Some insurance companies may consider that the extra perceived experience and skills required to hold a CDL are essential for the safe driving of a cargo van.  


Cargo Vans as Commercial Vehicles

If you drive a cargo van in a State that considers a commercial vehicle, it is not only the type of license you need to drive it that can be affected. As a commercial vehicle, your cargo van will automatically be subject to the extra rules and regulations that State enforces on all commercial vehicles.

These additional regulations may include:

  • Carrying out both pre and post journey checks on the van
  • Maintaining accurate servicing records for the van
  • Restricted speeds on some highways
  • Not being allowed to use certain sections of particular highways
  • A requirement to stop at some or all weigh stations on your route
  • To obtain a DOT number for your van


DOT Numbers

Department of Transport (DOT) requires that all commercial vehicles with a GVWR over 10,000lbs operating interstate must obtain a DOT number. They are for the vehicle, not the person who drives it.

This is a number assigned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

If your cargo van is considered a commercial vehicle, it will almost certainly need a DOT number as most cargo vans will have a GVWR over 10,000lbs.

Obtaining a DOT number can be done instantly in person but can take up to 6 weeks by mail.

Although obtaining a DOT number is currently free of charge, each individual transport authority may charge you as much as $300 to operate commercially in their district.


Obtaining a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License)

If you do need a CDL to drive your cargo van, there are certain criteria you will have to meet, and these are:

  • Be at least 18 years of age in most States (This age may differ depending on the State)
  • Be at least 21 years of age if you intend to cross state lines or carry hazardous materials
  • Have at least 2 years driving experience
  • Show proof of identity
  • Have no active license suspensions from any State
  • Surrender your regular driver’s license on receipt of your CDL


Towing Trailers

Even if your State permits you to drive a cargo van on a regular personal driver’s license, you may still tow a trailer. The trailer’s total weight however must not exceed 10,000lbs, or you will require a CDL to tow it.



The fact that in many states, a CDL is not required to drive a cargo van may account for some of its growing popularity among small businesses and rental companies.

If renting a cargo van, remember to ask for the rental company’s license regulations as well as that of the State’s.

When driving in or through a State which requires a CDL to drive a cargo van, you may have to show more than just your license if stopped. As the driver of what is classed as a commercial vehicle, if stopped you may have to show the vehicle’s DOT number and servicing records as well as your own CDL.

Regardless of what license you need to drive your cargo van, you must remember that it is a van and not a car. This means that it should be driven in the same way as a van, driving at slower speeds than you may in a car and remembering that you have blind spots when reversing.

Author: Kenneth Graham

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