Updated May 22, 2024

Efforts to increase restrictions on travel and trade in African Elephant ivory and other endangered animal and plant species has placed a new focus on long-existing permitting rules for international travel with instruments that contain endangered species material. Those rules are contained in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, otherwise known as CITES (SIGH-tees). Before embarking on the permit process, it is critical to understand as much as possible about the rules and limitations that apply to travel with permits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides and overview regarding “Traveling Across International Borders with Your Musical Instrument” is a helpful resource. Following are tips for becoming familiar with these rules.

News: Note that Canada is implementing new permit requirements for musical instruments containing ivory, as of January 8, 2024. Learn more.

1. Know what materials are in your instruments.

The first step in understanding how to be compliant with CITES rules is to know which materials are contained in musical instruments that will be transported across international borders. Permits are required for the most highly-protected material found in musical instruments, listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and certain materials that are regulated to a lesser degree, listed in Appendix II and III. While the most common Appendix I species found in musical instruments are African elephant ivory, sea turtle shell, and Brazilian rosewood, it is important to be aware of any plant or animal material an instrument may contain. For instance, Asian elephant ivory, monitor lizard and whale bone may be found in certain bow tips and grips.

Visit the CITES checklist – an online resource that contains CITES-listed species based on Appendix, country, or other criteria.

At CITES treaty negotiations that concluded on August 28, 2019, the 183 Parties to the Convention agreed by consensus to remove permit requirements for both commercial and noncommercial movement of finished musical instruments, parts, and accessories made from non-Brazilian rosewood. Note that musical instruments containing Brazilian rosewood will continue to require CITES permits for noncommercial travel.

In addition to species protected by CITES, it is important to consider the additional rules for species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

We have compiled a list of protected species most commonly found in musical instruments (PDF) summarizing the qualifications required for obtaining a U.S.-issued CITES permit.

Instrument makers and appraisers may help with the identification process. Differentiating types of ivory, for instance can be difficult and require the help of an expert. In order to qualify for a permit, documentation of the age of the instrument is also often required and will need to be formally verified.

2. Become familiar with the CITES permit process. 

Applying for the proper permits takes time and should be done well in advance of travel. Originally, countries issued only single-use permits for travel with instruments, requiring new, multiple documents for each international trip. A streamlined process for issuing musical instrument certificates for international travel was accepted  by 178 nations at a March 2013 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This “passport” process allows a single document to be recognized by multiple countries, good for travel for up to three years.  While the CITES Musical Instrument Certificate is meant to harmonize the process globally, each country adopts its own procedures for issuing and recognizing the documents, and some still only issue single-use permits. Here in the U.S., a specific form is currently in use for issuing multi-year passports. It is critical to understand that, for both individual musicians and ensembles alike, putting the CITES certificate to use requires that the document is credentialed at international borders by authorities and inspected by officials separate from typical customs agents, and often at facilities apart from major airports. Learn more in our section 3: Consider the limited locations for exiting and entering the U.S. with CITES permits.”

Important note: Musicians who do not have a primary residence in the U.S. must apply to their home country for a multi-use passport. Musicians based outside the U.S. will need to contact their country’s CITES authorities to inquire about permit and passport procedures, and may need to obtain single-use permits if a multi-use permit process is not available. Foreign-based musicians should also note that CITES permits issued outside the U.S. may not comply with additional U.S. domestic rules related to protected species policies.

U.S.-Issued Multi-Use Musical Instrument Certificates:

A musical instrument certificate good for up to three years will allow musicians to meet the CITES requirements for travel through multiple countries. To qualify, a musician or group must have a primary residence in the U.S. The application fee is $75 per application. The estimated timeframe for processing an application is 60-90 days, and it is advisable to begin the permit application process as soon as the instruments intended for travel are confirmed. In the case that instrumentation changes after a group certificate has been issued, amendments to group certificates are available with an added $75 fee per amendment request. 

Applications for a multi-year musical instrument certificate for an individual instrument or multiple instruments traveling as a unit (such as in cargo), containing plant and/or animal material use the form 3-200-88, which may be completed online.

The League has assembled this Sample chart (xls) showing the required instrument information needed for CITES permit applications for groups of instruments. Applicants should expand the columns in the chart as needed to include all covered species.

Note that a musical instrument may only be included in one CITES permit at a time.  So, for instance, if a musician’s instrument is included on a group permit, that permit must be returned to USFWS for voiding before the musician’s instrument may be included on a subsequent individual or group permit.

Start the process by emailing questions to the Division of Management Authority at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: managementauthority@fws.gov.

U.S.-Issued Single-Use Permits:

Those unable to apply for the three-year passport may still make use of the single-use permit forms.  This may be required, for instance, for foreign-based musicians that are not able to obtain a multi-use permit from their home country.

A single instrument containing animal material (such as ivory or sea turtle shell), or animal and plant material (such as ivory and Brazilian rosewood) uses Permit Application form 3-200-23.

A single instrument containing plant material only (such as Brazilian rosewood) uses Permit Application form 3-200-32.

3. Consider the limited locations for exiting and entering the U.S. with CITES permits.

An instrument bearing a CITES permit or passport may only travel through a very limited number of designated ports of entry and exit where U.S. Fish and Wildlife and/or Department of Agriculture officials are on hand to inspect and credential documents. Unanswered questions about the port process abound, and the policies vary from port to port. Musicians traveling with CITES permits are strongly encouraged to contact ports in advance. There are 18 U.S. ports for traveling with animal material (such as African elephant ivory or sea turtle shell) or both plant and animal material (such as African elephant ivory and Brazilian rosewood), and 31 ports for traveling exclusively with CITES plant material (such as Brazilian rosewood). While this limitation is challenging, showing a permit at a non-designated port could be highly problematic and disruptive to travel.

We have assembled this list of Designated Ports of Entry/Exit for traveling with protected species.

A formal declaration must be made, using the Declaration Form and Procedures for Wildlife Material.

Fees and Inspection Overtime Charges

4. Additional layers of rules may apply country by country.

It is extremely important to remember that each country may continue to apply additional permitting requirements for complying with additional layers of domestic endangered species rules. (For instance, here in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act apply.) The U.S.-issued CITES permits or passport may not cover all foreign permitting requirements. If a permit is being used for travel, it is always advisable to contact the CITES authorities of the countries you will visit. Keep in mind that since this process is unevenly implemented, it may be difficult to quickly find the answers you seek.

Note that certain countries may allow musicians to travel without CITES permits if their instrument contains a species listed in Appendix II (such as a bow with a lizard skin grip) and is checked in luggage, or hand-carried as a “personal effect.” At present, exemptions from the CITES process are not available for items shipped by cargo.

For more information about implementation of CITES requirements in Europe, Pearle* – Live Performance Europe and the International Federation of Musicians (FIM) host the website Travelling with musical instruments in compliance with CITES rules and also the guide, Crossing Borders.

Always consult CITES Authorities prior to international travel.

5. Make use of the latest League resources.

The League and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to partner to produce guidance that clearly explains the U.S. rules for international travel. A free May 7, 2024 webinar, Travel Rules for Protected Species and Musical Instruments, featured experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presented by the League of American Orchestras in partnership with the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, Chamber Music America, Folk Alliance International, the International Alliance of Violin and Bow Makers for Endangered Species, NAMM – the National Association of Music Merchants, and the Recording Academy. The webinar is designed to be an ongoing resource for use over time, and increasing awareness of the rules helps to support both conservation efforts and international cultural activity. The League’s webinar overview page includes the recording, transcript, and pdf of slides.

The League’s Symphony coverage includes feature articles that provide helpful background information about the CITES policy process and rules:

League of American Orchestras Statements (PDFs)

The content of the League’s Advocacy & Government webpages is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any subject matter. This website should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

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