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Trucksafe's President Brandon Wiseman and Vice President Jerad Childress are transportation attorneys who have represented and advised hundreds of motor carriers (both large and small) on DOT regulatory compliance. Brandon and Jerad are regular speakers at industry events and routinely contribute to industry publications. They are devoted to helping carriers develop state-of-the-art safety programs, through personalized consulting services and relevant training resources. 

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What is a DOT license?

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

If you've asked the question "what is a DOT license," you're certainly not alone. It's a fairly popular search term on Google, but it's a little misleading. In reality, there is no such thing as a "DOT license" per se, at least in the parlance of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). There are, however, a number of registrations, permits, and authorities that some may colloquially refer to as a "DOT license," the most significant of which we will explore in this article.

USDOT Registration (a/k/a DOT Number)

USDOT Registration--or a USDOT number--is the means by which regulated motor carriers (as well as property brokers and freight forwarders) in the U.S. are identified as such by the FMCSA. Generally speaking, all motor carriers, whether for-hire or private, must register their operations with the FMCSA if they operate vehicles or combinations of vehicles (e.g., truck/trailer) that exceed 10,000 lbs., haul placardable quantities of hazmat, or are designed to transport 9 or more passengers for compensation in interstate commerce.

USDOT registration is accomplished through the agency's Unified Registration System (URS). Once registered, a carrier is assigned a unique USDOT number, with which all of its registration details (e.g., business name, address, FEIN, phone number, number of power units, number of drivers) are associated. Carriers must update these registration details at least biennially by filing an MCS-150. Additionally, as a general rule, carriers must display their company name or d/b/a (as listed on the USDOT registration), followed by their USDOT number on both sides of any regulated power units they operate on public roadways.

Motor Carrier Operating Authority (a/k/a MC Number)

If someone has told you that you need a "DOT license," they are most likely referring to the combination of a DOT number and motor carrier operating authority. Motor carrier operating authority--or an MC number--is required for all motor carriers that haul goods or passengers for-hire in interstate commerce. Like the DOT number, motor carrier operating authority is issued by the FMCSA. But unlike DOT numbers standing alone, motor carrier operating authority requires the carrier's commercial auto-liability insurer to make a corresponding insurance filing, evidencing that the carrier has the required amount of insurance under federal law (e.g., at least $750,000 for general commodity haulers, and up to $5 million for certain hazmat haulers and passenger carriers).

The motor carrier operating authority requirement is not dependent on vehicle weight, meaning that regardless of the size of your vehicles, you will generally need authority to transport freight or passengers for-hire. And because the FMCSA now requires all motor carrier authority holders to also obtain a DOT number, you may very well need both. In contrast, private carriers (i.e., those that simply haul their own passengers or freight, such as landscaping companies) are generally not required to obtain motor carrier operating authority, though they would still need a DOT number if they operate vehicles or combinations that exceed 10,000 lbs. in interstate commerce.

State Motor Carrier Registration

While the FMCSA has jurisdiction over interstate motor carrier operations, each state has jurisdiction over intrastate operations conducted within their borders. And as a condition to receiving federal funds, every state in the country has, to some extent, adopted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations for intrastate operations. Practically speaking, this means that most states require motor carriers that operate exclusively in intrastate commerce to register their operations with the applicable state agency. In some states, this entails obtaining a state-specific DOT number, which is typically appended with the state's two-letter abbreviation (e.g., FLDOT 1234567). Other states simply utilize the federal system and require intrastate motor carriers to obtain an intrastate-only DOT number.

State Motor Carrier Authority

Similar to the federal MC number, some states (approximately half) in the U.S. require motor carriers that perform intrastate services within their borders to obtain intrastate motor carrier authority. The specific triggers for such authorities varies by state. For example, Texas only requires intrastate property motor carriers to obtain intrastate authority if they operate vehicles or combinations that exceed 26,000 lbs.


The term "DOT license" can refer to any number of federally- or state-issued motor carrier registrations, permits, or authorities. As a general rule, if you operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce, you likely need a DOT number and possibly motor carrier operating authority. Likewise, if you operate commercial vehicles in intrastate commerce, you may very well need an intrastate DOT number and possible intrastate motor carrier authority. You can find more information about interstate DOT numbers and MC numbers on the FMCSA's website. For state-specific details, you'll need to contact the agency in your state that is responsible for regulating motor carriers (e.g., state DOT, DPS, highway patrol, etc.).

If you are looking to set up a trucking company or passenger carrier operation and need assistance with DOT registration, operating authority, or other aspects of federal or state safety regulations, please feel free to contact us. Also, be sure to check out our online comprehensive DOT compliance courses through Trucksafe Academy. And lastly, if you are interested in downloading a FREE copy of Trucksafe's "Am I Regulated?"--a handy guide to determining whether and to what extent your operations are subject to the federal safety regulations, be sure to subscribe to our mailing list.


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