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Air Travel with your Violin and Bow: Getting the Documents You Need

Laurie Niles

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Published: June 26, 2014 at 9:38 PM [UTC]

Over the last year, air travel with a stringed instrument has grown much more difficult in the United States. Violinists have been left on the tarmac while the plane left, after being denied onto the plane with their violins. Others have had their bows confiscated because they possibly contained ivory. It's stressful and confusing.

No bow fly zone?

Here is some help, if you are planning a trip:

Getting your violin on the airplane

Your violin cannot go as checked baggage without grave risk of being broken by baggage handlers or harmed by the very cold conditions in cargo. In order to ensure that you can bring your violin on the plane, here are our best suggestions:

  • The FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012, approved by the U.S. Congress in February of that year, in Section 713, "requires an air carrier to permit an air passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument on a passenger aircraft without charge if it can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft or under a passenger seat." Copy this bill, highlight Section 713, and put it in the pocket of your fiddle case. Here it is for you to copy.
  • Bring your violin as your only carry-on bag to go in the overhead compartment.

Avoiding having your bow confiscated

  • If possible, travel with a bow that contains no ivory, no tortoise shell, no pernambuco. If your bow contains no banned items, you don't need special documents. However, to be safe you can write to the maker or manufacturer and request a "materials declaration" document to keep in your case, in case you are accused of having ivory in your bow and need proof that you don't. (I wrote to Codabow, maker of my carbon fiber bow, and they were very prompt and helpful getting me this document. Coda told me they likely will begin making these available online; I'll let you know as soon as I have a link for that.)
  • If your bow does contain any of the banned materials, see the explanation and link below and also read several helpful suggestions that have been made in the comments to this blog:

A lot of work has gone into mitigating the effects of a Feb. 25, 2014 immediate ban by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on traveling with items that contain any African ivory. In May, the ban was amended to allow for traveling with stringed instruments that contain a small amount of ivory, but only under certain conditions. According to Raymond M. Hair, Jr., International President American Federation of Musician of the United States and Canada, in a letter to AFM members: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still requires the following requirements be met before you can safely travel in and out of the U.S. with a musical instrument containing African elephant ivory. It now requires that:

1. The ivory contained in the instrument was legally acquired prior to February 26, 1976;
2. The instrument must not have subsequently been transferred from one person to another person for financial gain or profit since February 25, 2014;
3. The person or group qualifies for a CITES musical instrument certificate;
4. The musical instrument containing African elephant ivory must be accompanied by a valid CITES musical instrument certificate or an equivalent CITES document."

The problem that remains is obtaining that CITES ("Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species") document, which requires applying for said document and producing ownership documents. Even the AFM was having a hard time figuring out how to guide members on this: "Due to lack of guidance from USFWS, there is still confusion over where to go, either online or in person, to apply for and obtain the correct permit. Since musicians have been singled out, we believe there should be a one-stop online center for information specifically regarding musical instruments. These issues should have been addressed along with the amended Order as well. They too must be resolved," Hair said.

Here is the best link that I could find about how to obtain a CITES document for traveling with an instrument that contains Brazilian rosewood, elephant ivory, tortoiseshell, or another protected species: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs: Traveling Across International Borders with Your Musical Instrument. Getting such a permit can take up to 60 days, according to the USFWS, which also says that "we are in the process of developing a new application form for the musical instrument passport program." In the meantime, it's pretty confusing.

If you have information or advice to share to help the members of this community who will be traveling by air with their instruments, please add it in the comments section. Good luck and safe travels, everyone!


From bow maker Matt Wehling:

"Thanks for posting about the current problems with trying to travel internationally with a bow. However, there were a couple inaccuracies in your blog post.

First, it is currently OK to travel with a pernambuco bow. The CITES listing is only for raw wood, but a finished bow is OK from a pernambuco standpoint.

Second, it would be great if a letter from the maker was accepted by importation officials, but there's no guarantee. It's better than nothing, I suppose, but still agents on the ground may or may not accept it. And while almost all bows made in the last 20-25 years by modern makers like me would have a mastodon tip, there's no way an official can easily tell the difference so your at the mercy of their whims.

Third, there's also a species of shell which is subject to import/export restrictions. And so, even though no maker uses this shell, a government agent might decide to confiscate your bow for that.

Fourth, the New York legislature is considering a bill which will make it illegal to sell ivory. There is an exception in the law for musical instruments made before 1975, but that still outlaws a lot of bows from being sold. And the New Jersey Legislature this week also passed legislation for signature by Governor Christie that would ban the import, sale, purchase, and possession with intent to sell of any ivory (elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, narwhal, walrus or whale) or rhino horn, with no exceptions. I'm not sure, but that sounds like a New Yorker couldn't even legally drive across the bridge to play a gig in Jersey with a legally purchased bow which has a mammoth tip.

And we all need to start organizing, because the next possible banned substance will potentially be ebony, which is in every musical instrument.

Bowmakers are working to try to find a suitable replacement material which will be easily distinguishable from ivory, yet not ugly as sin. But it needs to be good and stable and glue well to wood, which not all plastic materials will do. But we're trying."

* * *

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Posted on June 27, 2014 at 2:11 AM
Sorry but instead of concentrating on how to get around these ridiculous restrictions, musicians and the AFM need to these laws changed or exceptions made for instruments. At this rate, it won't be long before foreign musicians will refuse to travel to the US and US musicians will not travel out of the country on gigs that are paying top-dollar.
In the name of legislating and end to some pretty awful things, like killing elephants for ivory, the government has once again gone to ridiculous lengths to cause nothing but grief for people that are not part of the problem.
Time to stand up to politicians and get this bad legislation changed.
Posted on June 27, 2014 at 2:42 AM
My wife and I just went through the process of applying for a Musical Instrument Passport from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for her violin bow, which contains elephant ivory. Here are some things I learned:

(1) Things move slowly and take a long time. While the USFWS says that the process takes 60 days, in reality it could take much longer. When I called them on June 16 to check on our application, I was told that they were currently processing an application that arrived at their office on March 4.

(2) The form to fill out is 3-200-23 and a link to it may be found here:

(3) With the completed application, you should also send a cover letter explaining that you are a professional musician (i.e. that your export/import of the violin bow is strictly non-commercial). State the dates and locations of performance. Also, request a "Musical Instrument Certificate" or a "Musical Instrument Passport" as you may make several international trips with your bow. Along with the cover letter, include a photocopy of the bow's appraisal (showing its age, materials, value, and weight) and a receipt from when you purchased the bow. The application fee is $75.

(4) The USFWS only mails things via USPS first class mail, so if you are short on time, you must send them a prepaid FedEx waybill. This can be done on, but you have to set up a FedEx account. They do NOT use UPS.

(4) The Musical Instrument Passport is valid for three years from the date of issue. It's like a real passport, with two full pages of empty blanks that must be stamped by customs for each departure from and arrival to the US.

(5) Once you receive your CITES permit from the USFWS, it's not over. Before you leave the US, your bow must be inspected by an FWS customs agent at one of the following ports of departure listed here: We are departing out of Chicago O'Hare, so this entails a brief customs check of the bow at O'Hare just before we go through security and board the plane. I am not sure, however, what happens for passengers who are not traveling through one of these cities.

(6) Everyone I spoke with on the phone from the Fish and Wildlife Service was professional, polite, and helpful. As a government agency, however, they are overrun and overworked. Things take time. Start the application as soon as possible; to be safe, allow at least 4 months.

Posted on June 27, 2014 at 7:20 AM
I am very sorry to read that yet again the American string playing industry is allowing itself to veer from the most important point that this legislation is not protecting elephants. In fact I have recently read that more poaching of the really big elephants is taking place. Surely the best possible approach is to reduce considerably the value of the ivory. It has only been used on bows over the past 235 years simply because it is the best possible material for the job it does and compared to ivory carvings, chess sets, gun stocks and herbal medicine - bow makers over this same period of 235 years have used a miniscule amount. Unfortunately, help for the elephant does not seem to be high on the agenda, when all CITES and some world governments wish to do is to push up the price of ivory, making it a must have item for those with the money to pay for it.

My simple solution has always been to cut up existing stocks (not to to burn it or to crush it into powder) and then to give it away. Yes, to destroy its value by making it worthless. Who in their right mind is then going to kill an elephant for profit - there would be none. I feel also, that a ban on all elephant hunting (not legal African government culling) would go a considerable way to redressing the balance. Left on their own, elephants breed like rabbits (excuse the pun) just a little slower. Making a natural stock of ivory easy to come by. Keep the price down and it will remain that way.

I am a working bow maker toward the end of my working life and I eat meat and vegetables but does the currents laws of banning a substance to protect it mean that at some time in the future when the population goes over 20 billion we will all be eating chemicals because all other living creatures have been "protected". Think about it!

Posted on June 27, 2014 at 9:40 AM
I'm just shocked about the stupidity of these retrictions.
It was already very difficult to obtain visa to go to perform in the US, and several times I just declined invitations for that reason.
But with these new idiotic retrictions I think that lots of string players will avoid this country.

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 27, 2014 at 2:11 PM
That's fine, but how long will that legislative process take? One doesn't know even if it will be successful. Even though I don't travel very much with my violin, I'm grateful to Laurie on providing at least the info that travelers will need in the present.
Posted on June 27, 2014 at 3:23 PM
Here's a shorter version of the proof you need that they have to let you on the plane with it. Succinct - one page.
From George Christy
Posted on June 27, 2014 at 3:49 PM
Do not think that because Congress passed a law, you will never have to check your case. The new law is not enforceable until the FAA issues its new rules implementing the law. The FAA has said it currently lacks the resources to issue the new rules.
The important point is that, even after the FAA issues its new rules to implement the new law, if all of the overhead bins are full by the time you try to place your case in a bin, you are going to have to check your case unless (1)another passenger offers to check an already stowed item
(2) a crew member agrees to place your case in a secure place (3)there is an empty seat in which you can secure your case or you deplane and(4)take another flight with overhead space.
The closer you are to the beginning of the boarding line, the better chance you have of finding space in the overheads.
Also, another problem to be aware of: if you place your case in an empty overhead bin, be sure to place your case in the end of the bin closest to the cockpit. If your case is in the tail end of an otherwise empty bin, when the pilot puts on the brakes after landing, your case will slide very quickly to the opposite end of the bin.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 27, 2014 at 5:11 PM
Thank you for the helpful advise and links about getting a Musical Instrument Passport from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service! The more we can share information, the better.

Also, here is a page from the League of American Orchestra with a lot of links and information about the ivory ban:

Posted on June 27, 2014 at 8:27 PM

I've done a fair bit of work on this topic for your fretted instrument-loving siblings who read Fretboard Journal. I offer two articles that your readers might find of interest.

Carrying on instruments. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 did mandate that airlines allow instruments to be carried on board, but only if there's room for them in the overhead bins. Moreover, that Act does not do into effect until the FAA promulgates implementing regulations and the FAA has not yet promulgated the regulations. My article:

Musical instrument passports. CITES import, export, and re-import permits are good for but one use. The new recently embraced musical instrument passport (termed a "Musical Instrument Certificate" by the treaty language) allows for multiple border crossings. Here is my how-to article on obtaining a passport: One note on that article: I obtained my passport before US Fish and Wildlife had created the application form. I used old form 3-200-32. Here is the current form, 3-200-88:

John Thomas

Posted on June 27, 2014 at 11:09 PM
We now have the technology to produce "test tube meat" using animal cells grown in a laboratory. Is it possible to harvest ivory-growing cells from an animal at a zoo, and grow ivory in a similar manner? One problem with test tube meat is that it is not cost effective, but it seems to me growing ivory in this way would be cost effective due to the rarity of ivory. This ivory could be genetically marked in such a way that it would be easily distinguishable from ivory that comes from the wild. Someone with the means should start studying this.
Posted on June 28, 2014 at 4:22 AM
A lot of musicians are switching to silver bow tips - similar weight. An unfortunately expensive solution but at least avoids confusion. That's what we did.
From Lawrence Price
Posted on June 28, 2014 at 6:06 PM
I have owned most of my bows for over forty years and have no bill of sale. The same is true for one of my violins which was acquired by my father when I was just a boy. These kinds of documents were not considered very important at the time. The bows have now become somewhat valuable as has the violin. How can I deal with this issue in terms of traveling with these items? Is there any way to be able to create documents in this situation?
Posted on June 28, 2014 at 6:40 PM
My baroque violin bow has a clip in ivory frog and i had a spare one made from camel bone. This has the same weight, density etc and looks very similar. So far, this is not illegal. Worth considering?
From Nozomi Tanaka
Posted on June 29, 2014 at 2:59 PM
This was very very helpful. Thank you for posting :) In my country, the staff is really strict about the size of carry on luggage rather than what's actually being carried. When I visited the USA, I actually found the regulations to be less strict. What about for other countries?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 2, 2014 at 7:59 PM
Lawrence, I think your situation reflects many people's situations. I would advise approaching it from both ends. Perhaps a luthier or bow maker could provide you an appraisal that also includes a materials declaration? Also, try contacting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and just ask them. Please share with us if you find a good solution!

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