April 14, 2017     Max Petot

Learning to Fly: Rules and Regulations of Flying with your Instrument


Performing in different parts of the world is a rewarding and exciting opportunity that hopefully every musician will be able to experience at some point in their lifetime. However, there are many rules dictating international travel with instruments and it’s important that all musicians – from bass players to flutists – are aware of the regulations. These often involve the materials that instruments are made from including tortoiseshell, certain types of wood, and ivory.

The ivory issue

Ivory is a hard, white material extracted from elephant tusks and the teeth of mammals. It can be found in older string bows, piano keys, guitars, bassoons, and other instruments. Instruments made with ivory can cause problems while traveling because the trade of ivory from an endangered species is illegal. 

If you’re unsure whether or not your instrument or bow contains ivory, there is an easy way to find out. Ivory has subtle cross-hatches called Schreger lines that can be seen with the naked eye. They appear in concave or convex angles much like in the image below. 

Piece of wood showing Schreger Lines

If you discover that your instrument contains ivory, it is important you get a CITES Musical Instrument Certificate. A CITES Certificate acts as a sort of passport for your instrument. If you choose to forego the certificate, you may put your instrument at risk of being confiscated. In 2014, a new piece of legislation was passed which tightened the rules and regulations of traveling with ivory. 

How can I get a CITES Certificate?

The CITES Certificate can be found and filled out online. However, there are several stipulations you may run into with the certificate that are dependent on your instrument and what it is made out of. 

1. First, you’ll need the serial number of your instrument, which can be found printed on the instrument, or by contacting the manufacturer.

2. Next, you will need a way to confirm that the instrument was made prior to February 26, 1976. This information can also be obtained by contacting the manufacturer.

3. Make sure your instrument is clearly marked so the authorities may identify that the instrument corresponds with the CITES Certificate. A photograph can also be helpful to ensure that the instrument being transported is the same one verified on the certificate. (This can also come in handy for insurance purposes if any damage occurs!)

4. You will have to prove that you purchased your instrument prior to July 6, 2016.

Another document you may need to fill out is a US Department of the Interior permit that allows for multiple border crossings. Though this document is long and may seem daunting, much of the information you will have already identified in filling out your CITES Certificate. This form is valid for three years and costs $75 for renewal.

Even after filling out these forms, it is important to be aware of how your instrument may be inspected by security at the airport when you travel. Security must inspect your instrument containing ivory from a “designated port,” at which all wildlife products must be imported or exported from. It’s essential to know which US airports are considered designated ports and to ensure you have your instrument containing ivory checked there. Inspections are done during business hours (9 a.m.- 5 p.m.), so it’s important you arrive between those hours. You will also need one last final document (trust me, this one is short!) – the Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Wildlife. This document must be emailed to the office of the designated port prior to your inspection.

For more information on traveling with instruments containing ivory, you can visit U.S Fish and Wildlife website.

Other materials

While ivory is a primary concern for many musicians, certain woods can also cause issues with airport security. Luckily, the regulations regarding wood products are much less stringent, somewhat thanks to the controversy Gibson ran into in 2012 when they were raided by the feds for violating the Lacey Act. However, older instruments made with certain woods can still cause issues, so it is important for musicians to know what materials their instruments are made of as well as what regulations exist.

Brazilian rosewood, a material used in high-end, boutique guitars, appears on the CITES Act, however guitar players may find some exceptions. For example, the CITES Act states for certain woods, non-commercial exports under 10 kilograms (or 22 pounds) may be exempt. There is still cause for concern because the language of the CITES Act lacks clarity and seems to suggest the 10 kilogram rule may only apply to shipments and exports. It is still best for you to have the necessary documents. The rules differ between ivory and certain woods, but most instruments will still need a CITES Certificate and other approval forms.

While the rules and regulations may seem overwhelming, ensuring that your instrument is safe as you travel overseas will be worth it. It is critical to be aware of what materials your instrument may contain, and how to fill out the proper documentation before you travel so you can make your way around the world with ease. 

Nine young women in red shirts standing in front of Stonehenge. Image text: 27 Safe Travel Dos and Don'ts for Traveling School Ensembles. Read the Blog.

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