Do You Need a CDL to Drive a Skoolie? (Bus Conversion FAQs)

do you need a cdl to drive a skoolie

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the question of whether you need a CDL (commercial driver’s license) or special driver’s license to drive converted school bus RVs (what we affectionately call skoolies), made even murkier by the fact that the rules surrounding special license requirements vary state to state.

Fortunately, I’ve done the research and talked to skoolie owners from around the country to bring you the most concise answers possible.

So, do you need a CDL to drive a skoolie? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is no. Once you have registered your skoolie for personal use (usually as a recreational vehicle), you do not need a CDL. However, you may need an air brake certification or special license based on the weight of your skoolie, depending on your state of origin.

Driving a School Bus for Personal Use

Yes you can. It’s a common misconception that school buses are “commercial vehicles,” which would be better phrased as “vehicles that are often used for commercial purposes.” If you purchase a school bus and register it for personal use, then there is nothing commercial about it.

The differentiation lies in whether you will be using the vehicle for commercial or personal trips, NOT any sort of inherent characteristics of the vehicle. In fact, as long as you aren’t hauling any commercial goods, you could drive a semi truck for personal use if you wanted to.

However, in many instances, a school bus will still be registered for commercial use when you purchase it. So, until you have re-registered it for personal use or as a recreational vehicle, some states may require that you have a CDL, which can make picking the bus up tricky logistically.

In many states, the bill of sale is enough to get you home legally from the transaction. Check your state’s laws for exact details on this. To avoid any potentially illegal driving, you can opt to have a professional driver (with a CDL) deliver the bus to you.

Do I Need a Special License to Drive a Bus Conversion?

In most states, no. However, some states do have different classes of driver’s licenses based on the weight of the vehicle and/or whether it has air brakes. Again, each state has different rules about this, so contact your local DMV to find out the exact requirements. 

Of course, these special licenses will only be necessary for buses that are quite heavy and large. Small buses are generally built on van chassis and do not exceed the weight limits, nor do they have air brakes. So, if you are worried about having to get a special license, you can always avoid the whole process by selecting a smaller bus.

A CDL is not required to drive a school bus for personal use

No. CDLs are only necessary if the nature of your trip is commercial, and if you are driving your bus for personal use, a CDL is not required. However, as we outlined above, certain special licenses may be needed based on the weight and brake type of your bus. Additionally, in some states, your bus may need to be re-registered to show that it is for private use only before you are allowed to drive it for personal trips.

Skoolie Owners Share Their Licensing Experience…

Next up, I talked with some friends who converted large buses about their experiences driving big rigs and whether they needed CDLs or any kind of special licenses:

Elizabeth and Richard

White Sands National Monument (@littlehouseonthehwy)

Elizabeth and Richard (@littlehouseonthehwyfeatured image top of article as well) live in a beautifully unique 34-foot bus conversion with a T444E 7.3L V8 Turbo diesel engine. Here is what they shared about their experience:

Did you need any special certification/license/training to drive your bus in your state, or did anyone try to tell you that you needed one?

“When we first insured the bus in Georgia, we were not finished converting it so we had to purchase commercial insurance. For that, the driver was required to have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Richard used to be a school bus driver and still had his CDL, so that wasn’t a problem for us.

Once we registered our bus and transferred our title to ‘motorhome’ in Florida, we bought private insurance. Once we did that, we were not required to have any certification to drive or operate the bus.”

What was it like driving your bus for the first time? Were you nervous, anxious, stoked?

“For Richard, driving the bus was like coming home. He was so used to driving large vehicles, he was very comfortable. He can even parallel park the bus on a neighborhood street! For me, Liz, it was a little bit nerve-wracking. I was conscious of the fact that I was driving our home, and because our bus has air-brakes and is so heavy, about 10 tons, it makes it difficult for me to gauge how quickly the bus will stop.”

Do you have any advice for people considering buying/nervous about driving a big bus or is there anything else you’d like to share?

“Richard says to take it slow. Since buses are heavier it’s really important to look farther ahead while driving so you don’t have to jam on your brakes. For me, driving the bus in big parking lots and on the interstate made a huge difference because the more practice I got the more comfortable I felt.”

Want to see more of Elizabeth and Richard’s adventures? Check out their YouTube channel

 

Also read:

Where can I Buy a Cheap School Bus?

How Much Does a Bus Conversion Cost?

School Bus Conversion Companies: 10 Crowd Favorites

 

Shelby and David

Oregon Outback Scenic Byway (@aimlesstravels)

Shelby and David (@aimlesstravels) live in a stunning 26-foot bus conversion, and although their bus isn’t super long, it has some serious big-bus vibes. Here’s what Shelby shared with us:

Did you need any special certification/license/training to drive your bus in your state, or did anyone try to tell you that you needed one?

“In New Jersey, it was required to have a CDL if it was a commercial vehicle with air brakes (which it was when we purchased it). Additionally, we bought our bus down in North Carolina and the registration was expired. We chose to pay to get it shipped home. It was a little over $1,000 but was worth it to avoid the risk (especially when driving through WV).”

I asked whether they were able to get it re-registered as a non-commercial vehicle, and Shelby told me that they actually re-registered it in Vermont for personal use where the process of registration and insurance is much easier than in their home state of New Jersey, so they are not required to have CDLs.

Additionally, since I am from the west coast and not familiar with West Virginia traffic laws,  I asked Shelby to share why driving through that state is particularly risky, and she said that it’s because the penalties for vehicle infractions are much more severe there when compared to most other states, so driving an unregistered bus with no CDL and no insurance was understandably a bigger risk than they were willing to take.

To skooliepalooza! (@aimlesstravels)

What was it like driving your bus for the first time? Were you nervous, anxious, stoked?

“David took the bus for a spin when we first flew out to see it. Neither of us has had any experience driving such a large vehicle…let alone something with air brakes. On top of that, we were in a neighborhood with a narrow street. It was terrifying honestly, I remember David stepping on the brakes a few times and all of us almost going through the windshield.

It was definitely a learning curve, but it took us both fairly quickly to become comfortable with driving it (although David drives it the most for sure).”

Do you have any advice for people considering buying/nervous about driving a big bus or is there anything else you’d like to share?

“Don’t freak out about air brakes. They are definitely going to feel different but just do your research. Even more importantly, practice makes perfect when driving these things.

Drive it as much as you can just so you can get more comfortable. And, if you are super nervous about driving such a large rig (I totally get it, I was too), try finding a shorter bus. Depending on your needs, mid-size buses are a perfect in-between.”

You can find all the stats of Shelby and David’s bus and tales of their adventures on their blog.

Yvanka and Jeff

Sunset in Ehrenberg, Arizona (@hippie.hustlin)

Yvanka and Jeff (@hippie.hustlin) live in a gorgeous bohemian 37-foot flat nose Thomas bus conversion. It has a six-cylinder Cummins diesel engine, and after hearing their bus start up, I can say without a doubt that this thing has some serious power. Jeff provided these insights:

Did you need any special certification/license/training to drive your bus in your state, or did anyone try to tell you that you needed one?

We started in Florida and didn’t need to get any licenses to drive or operate the bus, except for an air brake endorsement which was just a written test.”

Cruisin through the desert (@hippiehustlin)

What was it like driving your bus for the first time? Were you nervous, anxious, stoked?

At first, I was pretty nervous. I’ve driven large box trucks before but the bus is a different animal. Driving the bus empty was completely different than driving it after we built it out as well. And it took some time to get accustomed to it. After driving across the country (while towing our truck) I’ve gotten extremely comfortable driving it.

We’ve taken it up and down some scary mountain roads but have found our limits and boundaries. One thing about school buses is they are built to industrial strength. They’re extremely durable and can last forever with maintenance and care.”

Do you have any advice for people considering buying/nervous about driving a big bus or is there anything else you’d like to share?

Slow and steady wins the race. If you’re nervous driving the bus, block out the thoughts and energies from everyone else. You can’t drive fast enough in the bus to make a difference anyway. Practice in an empty parking lot to find your turning radius. Double check road restrictions and routes ahead of time to make sure you don’t run into any problems.

Research, research, research. I wish I had done some more of it and found EXACTLY the bus I wanted.”

Final Thoughts

As all three of these skoolie owners have shared, practice is the key to feeling confident when driving a large bus. There are also ways to deal with almost any licensing issues that might come up that do not require you to get a CDL, even if you have your heart set on a massive bus.

Since skoolies are becoming more popular all the time, many licensing agencies have now had experience dealing with the process and can walk you through it.

 

Up Next In Skoolies / Bus Conversions:

Living in a Short Bus: 5 Full-Timers Tell All

12 Inspiring School Bus Conversion Documentaries

Skoolie Floor Plans: 4 Steps to YOUR Perfect Design

How To Get Insurance On a Skoolie | 3 Owners’ Stories

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