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Advice for string players visiting the USA

International tours have become a regular feature in the schedules of many musicians. The opportunity to play in the world’s finest concert halls and experience some local culture can more than compensate for the hard work in planning and the disruption to routine.

In the last few years, controls have become tighter over the movement of rare or endangered materials across international borders. Legal requirements for their import and export are subject to change at any time and often without notice. It is very important to ensure that you have the correct documentation prior to travel.

Generally, for musicians, travelling internationally does not require special certification, and as long you have adequate insurance to cover their instrument and belongings, you do not need anything else. However, a visit to the USA is a different matter, and specific documentation must be obtained.

For anyone planning to tour to the USA, I recommend firstly checking your insurance documents are up to date, and looking through any other paperwork to see if you have a letter from the maker or place of purchase detailing where and when the instrument or bow was made. If it was bought new, and the maker is still living, it may be possible to contact them directly and ask what materials they used, and whether they can write a letter listing them. This is a good first step because it costs nothing. Failing that, it will be necessary to obtain a letter from a specialist restorer or maker providing identification of all the materials.

If the letters state that no endangered materials are present, then no further documentation is required.

There are several materials found on instruments and bows which pose significant problems at US borders. These include tortoiseshell and whalebone fittings. It is not impossible to enter or leave America with such materials, but it involves an extra level of scrutiny from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife, during which you will be without your instrument or bow for several days, at considerable financial cost to you. It is vastly more practical to take another bow which is free of such materials.

Now we come to the issue of ivory. It’s a little complicated because the ability to take it through US Customs depends on the species of ivory used, and, if elephant ivory, how long ago it was fitted to the bow.

If a bow has an ivory face, it may be taken to the USA under certain circumstances, provided certification is obtained. The Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, can provide a Musical Instrument Certificate which will be valid for two years and allow the owner to take their instrument or bow to and from the USA as often as they like within that time, provided they do not have any repair work done. MICs are provided free in the UK.

In order to qualify for a MIC from CITES, the accompanying luthier’s letter must state that the ivory, if from an elephant, pre-dates 1975 (which is when elephants and their body parts became listed on CITES appendix I). Certification cannot be obtained for elephant ivory sourced after 1975 and import/ export of it is completely banned.

Mammoth ivory, on the other hand, is free of such considerations, having become extinct many thousands of years ago. The logic runs that as it is extinct, it is not endangered. In the last couple of decades, many luthiers have started to use mammoth ivory instead of elephant ivory, and may write a letter to that effect if the owner of the bow contacts them.

Sadly, it is almost impossible for the lay person to identify mammoth ivory from elephant ivory. The only way to do so positively is in a laboratory, where highly polished cross-sections can be analysed for their radial patterns.

This presents a conundrum to luthiers who have to make difficult decisions when writing a letter for a bow which has some form of ivory on it. They must consider several factors, such as: 1 The age of the bow.2 Whether the ivory face is original, OR3 When the face was replaced. In the third case, it may be possible to trace the repairer and find out what material they used. If the bow was re-faced after 1975 using elephant ivory, the repairer who fitted the face must be able to prove that the ivory was sourced before 1975, otherwise CITES will not issue a certificate. Often, the luthier who is asked to write the letter is not the same person who fitted the face, so this is why any information that the owner can provide regarding who has repaired their bow (and when) can be very useful for the person writing the letter!CITES will provide a MIC on receipt of an application form FED0172 and a satisfactory letter from a luthier. Application forms for the Musical Instrument Certificate can be downloaded at The form is not specifically designed for musicians, but there are guide notes to help fill it in.I suggest that if anyone is having difficulty filling it in, give CITES a call and they will help you. The form-filling process is not designed to catch musicians out or trick people - CITES staff will do all they can to help.Finally, I would also recommend checking the website for the American League of Orchestras which can offer up-to-date advice on US customs requirements.For international tours which are outside the US, it’s worth checking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website - or simply contacting the local embassy of the country you are travelling to.I hope this has helped, and I wish you a happy and trouble-free tour!

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