CITES – what musicians who travel need to know

CITES – what musicians who travel need to know

Ivory Act update – September 2022

This update summarises a short article on The Ivory Act from the ISM Journal, Autumn 2022 issue.

In June this year The Ivory Act became law, prohibiting commercial activity in elephant ivory.  Musicians should be relatively unaffected however, as the act exempts pre-1975 instruments with less than 20% ivory content.  The article nonetheless recommends that musicians travelling with exempt instruments should apply for a MIC.  Whether MICs will granted for exempt instruments remains to be seen – see my personal update below.

personal update – April 2021

As mentioned in my original article, I have 3 permits for two instruments. They were not absolutely necessary as my instruments would, in theory, have been exempt anyway (see rules 1,2,3 in original article) – they were a precaution, as advised by the UK CITES office.  Those certificates expire at the end of April 2021, so I applied to have them renewed.  However the UK CITES office would not renew my MIC permits on the grounds that the type of rosewood in my instruments is now exempt (see my February 2020 update) and the other timbers in them are either also now exempt or only restricted in raw form (logs, sawn timber etc).

Since my original article I have sold two guitars and bought two new ones, each with a type of rosewood that is exempt from CITES restrictions.  Again, the UK CITES office refused to issue me with an MIC permits for the guitar I intend to travel with.

So it would appear that I should be able to cross borders with instruments I intend to travel with, without needing any permits or falling foul of any CITES restrictions.

Please note however, that not all timbers are exempt.  Also makers should undertake their own research when shipping timbers across borders.


CITES update – February 2020

At a CITES convention in Geneva in August 2019, CITES member countries voted to make all species of Rosewood (latin=dalbergia) in musical instruments, except Brazilian Rosewood, exempt from requiring permits to cross borders.  I have waited a while to update this blog as some member countries did not plan to implement the new rule immediately.

For many guitarists and dulcimer players, this effectively means that their instruments are now safe to travel without permits.  Please be aware however that this only applies to Rosewood.  And, as before, if you have doubts, you may choose to contact the CITES office for guidance before travelling.

The original article is below.


a similar article to this blog was published this autumn in the UK dulcimer club’s Nonsuch News magazine

CITES – what musicians who travel need to know

why this blog ?

Flying with instruments has never been more difficult.  As well as airlines mistreating fragile instruments and Customs’ concerns over illegal importations, there is now a new challenge: CITES.  I would like to share what I know (at this point in time) and my understanding of the risks to help other musicians who cross borders with their instruments.  Why ? because, incredibly, Customs officials now have the right to confiscate and destroy instruments that do not comply with the new rules.

Please note: this article is written for musicians.  Makers & sellers who import / export instruments will need to undertake more relevant research.

what is CITES and what has changed ?

CITES is an international agreement that restricts the movement of plant and animal materials across borders.  Two of the aims of CITES are to help contain the spread of diseases and to help to protect endangered species (eg by restricting the movement ivory).

On the 4th January 2017 a new CITES agreement was implemented globally.  The new CITES lists now include many additional timbers, which are frequently used in the making of musical instruments.  For example: Rosewood is now on the CITES restricted lists and it is commonly used in guitars and mountain dulcimers for fingerboards and sometimes backs & sides.

why might you be exempt ?

Assuming your instrument does have restricted timbers in it (most mountain dulcimers and guitars probably will) – then, according to the UK CITES office, there are three reasons why your instrument would be exempt and you can probably safely travel across borders with it :-

  1. if the instrument was built before 4th January 2017 – or the timbers used can be shown to have been from stock prior to 4th January 2017
  2. if the total weight of restricted timbers in the instrument is below 10Kg
  3. if you intend to bring back the instrument with you – ie you are not exporting it, just traveling with it (although this might not be easy to prove on your outward journey)


At this point the reader might reasonably conclude that the CITES rules are for instrument makers and sellers who export, not musicians who will be returning home with their instruments.  Although all my current guitars and dulcimers do have restricted timbers in them, they would be exempt on all three counts above – so I should be safe, right ?  Well, unfortunately, perhaps not, read on …

what are the risks ?

Whilst the CITES timber lists have been agreed globally, the implementation of CITES rules will have been made locally; Each country may have interpreted the rules differently.  There is no guarantee that foreign (or UK for that matter) Customs or Border Control will honour the rules that the UK CITES office work by.  The UK CITES office therefore recommend you also contact the CITES officials in the country you are visiting.

You could be unlucky and be confronted by an over-zealous or miss-informed official and, even if they are wrong, there would be no come-back.  You can’t realistically sue a foreign Customs office for the loss of an instrument, nor is it likely that your insurance would cover such a loss.

With Brexit looming, EU Customs rules are still in debate and current speculation among UK politicians is that French Customs, in particular, may become deliberately obstructive to UK tourists post-Brexit.  It is not inconceivable therefore that French (or other EU) Customs may take a hard line on CITES regulations with British musicians traveling in the EU in the future.  There will certainly be confusion in the present.

I am not scaremongering here but simply applying best-practice risk analysis principles.  Yes, these risks are low and unlikely to manifest, as thousands of musicians safely cross borders with instruments every year (although I have heard some horror stories).  Should these risk manifest however, then the impact would be high.  It is therefore worth considering some countermeasures.  To what lengths you go to will depend upon :-

  • the value of your instrument(s)
  • which county(s) you are travelling to
  • weather you are using you instrument(s) for work or pleasure
  • what timbers are in the instrument(s) and how they are rated by CITES
  • your attitude to risk


what can you do to mitigate the risks ?

For years I‘ve been traveling with receipts of my instruments to prove that I’m not (on my return journey) illegally importing an instrument from abroad, avoiding import duties or VAT.  I’d recommend this as a minimum as the date on the receipt, if before 1/4/17, will prove that your instrument is exempt from CITES rules (see 1. above).

If the instrument is valuable, I’d also recommend finding out exactly what timbers (Latin names) are in it and if they are on the CITES lists.  Your maker might reasonably charge for a dated list of timbers included in your instrument and is probably best placed to do so.  Should your instrument contain listed timbers, I’d recommend you discuss your trip with the UK CITES office a few months ahead of travelling.

You could also apply for an MIC (Musical Instrument Certificate) from the UK CITES office.  MICs are like a passport for your instrument.  They are free and can be freely renewed every 3 years.  For the reasons outlined above you probably don’t absolutely need an MIC but it is another layer of protection.  Orchestras typically travel with MICs and the UK CITES office advise that their MICs have, to date, been accepted by US Border Control.

my experiences to date

I have made 3 trips to the USA since the new CITES rules were agreed without any CITES related problems and I will probably make more in the future.  It is unlikely however that I will travel across borders with my most valuable instruments from here on in.

I have MICs for two of my dulcimers – an acoustic and my electric.  The acoustic has two permits as it includes two listed timbers.  Technically, the MICs are only valid if stamped by Customs / Border Control upon arrival in the foreign country.  I do not request this however, so as not to draw attention to the matter unnecessarily.

I am currently buying a new guitar, to become my travel guitar.  The makers are providing me with a list of timbers in it and I will apply for an MIC for this instrument when it arrives.

to conclude

Many instruments, especially mountain dulcimers and guitars will contain CITES restricted timbers.  Mostly they will be excluded from the CITES restrictions and thousands of musicians have safely travelled with instruments since the new rules.  There are however some small but high-impact risks, which may prompt you to take precautions.