Agony and Ivory: The Ultimate Guide to Ivory for Musicians

“Help! I think I have ivory on my instrument/bow! What do I do???”

This is a question I’ve been asked several times since the US Fish and Wildlife Service implemented rules dictating African elephant ivory importation last year. Don’t fret; if you have ivory, you have options! Ivory for musical instruments is most prevalent on older (around pre-1980s) string bows, guitars, bassoon bell rings, piano keys, and bagpipes, among others. First thing’s first: do you actually have ivory?

Is this ivory?

It’s fairly easy to distinguish ivory from plastic. Ivory has tiny cross-hatching lines called Schreger lines. Here is a picture of elephant ivory with clearly distinguishable Schreger lines:

Schreger Lines on a piece of ivory

Schreger Lines on a piece of ivory

Note that other types of ivory (mammoth, walrus, muskox, etc) have different angled lines. Here’s a close up of a bassoon bell ring with elephant ivory:

Bassoon Ivory on a Heckel Bassoon

Bassoon Ivory on a Heckel Bassoon

If your instrument/bow looks like this, you have ivory and need to deal with it if you intend to travel internationally.

What are my options?

If you have ivory and you don’t intend to ever take it in/out of the US, don’t worry about it. No one from the government is going to break into your apartment/house and take your grandmother’s piano. If you are going to travel, you have 3 options:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Get a CITES Musical Instrument Certificate and use it every time you travel internationally
  3. Have the ivory removed

I know some people who have opted for option 1 and I highly discourage it. These instruments are many of our livelihoods and Congress has given the FWS the authority to seize property that contains undocumented ivory. This is no idle threat and we have seen instances of ivory being confiscated.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has created a workaround for musicians: the CITES (pronounced SIGH-tees) Musical Instrument Certificate (Passport).

CITES Musical Instrument Certificate

My CITES Musical Instrument Certificate

This is a multiple-use document used at the beginning and end of an international trip. Every time you leave the US with your instrument, it’s considered an export and every time you re-enter, it’s considered an import. You must have the ivory inspected each time, but more on that in a bit. Here’s how to obtain and use the instrument passport:

Step One: Gather your documentation

I contacted the maker of my bassoon, Heckel, with my serial number and asked for a letter confirming the year of manufacture. They happily obliged and emailed me and mailed me this:

Letter confirming the ivory's production date

Letter confirming the ivory’s production date

You need to prove that your ivory was produced before February 26, 1976. This is considered “Pre-Convention” and will allow you to get the passport. If your instrument was produced after this date, your only options are to either remove it or not travel internationally with it (Unfortunately Heckel continued to use ivory until the mid-1980s. However, they might be able to prove that the ivory was obtained before the 1976 date and thus permissible for a permit). I also made copies of the bill of sale from the woman I purchased the instrument from and the original owner. More documentation never hurts, so include whatever you have. You must also prove that you obtained the instrument prior to February 25, 2014 (a note or receipt from the seller would work well).

Next, you need to fill out a 3-200-88 form (the permit form for multiple border crossings).

Tip: The scientific name for Elephant Ivory is Loxodonta Africana.

The passport is valid for three years and requires a $75 processing fee to create or renew it. The processing time for the passport takes around 60 days (however, if it’s urgent, they can get it to you much quicker; I received mine in about a week after overnighting documents both ways).

Step Two: Using the Instrument Passport in the US

Now for the tricky part: actually using the permit.

In order to not get charged for the inspections, you must travel through one of the “designated ports.” Here is the most recent list of designated ports.

The 18 designated ports in the US

The 18 designated ports in the US

Fortunately you don’t have to originate from one of these ports, it just has to be your final stop before flying out of the country. For example, if you were flying from Denver, Colorado to Zurich, Switzerland, you would have to stop in one these designated ports to have your ivory inspected before leaving the country. This is exactly what I had to do last summer, so I made sure my flight itinerary stopped in Newark (one of the designated ports) and gave myself a 7 hour layover to ensure that I had enough time to have my inspection done.

You have to fill out a 3-177 form, which is the Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife form, and email it to the appropriate FWS office 48 hours prior to your arrival. Here is my filled out form from that trip:

3-177 8-15-14

Leaving the country


And here is the form for the importation when I arrived back in the US:

Re-entering the country

Make sure you bring multiple copies of it for your inspection, just in case. Here are some tips on filling out this form:

3: If you’re leaving the country, it’s an export; if you’re returning, it’s an import.

4: Port of Clearance code. This is a 2-letter code that designates the port you’re leaving/entering. The designated ports’ codes are: AN (Anchorage), AT (Atlanta), BA (Baltimore), BO (Boston), CH (Chicago), DF (Dallas), HA (Honolulu), HN (Houston), LA (Los Angeles), LO (Louisville), ME (Memphis), MI (Miami), NO (New Orleans), NY (New York), NW (Newark), PT (Portland), SF (San Francisco), SE (Seattle).

5: Purpose code. This is Personal, so put “P” here.

7: Name of carrier. Put the airline that you’re flying on.

9: Transportation code. Put “P” again, this time it stands for “Personal accompanying baggage.”

13a: Put down your personal home address in the US.

14a: Put down the address in which you’ll be staying in first (hotel, host home, etc).

16: The scientific name for African Elephant Ivory is Loxondonta Africana.

18a: For the description code you can put either IVC (Ivory carving) or UNS (Unspecified).

18b: “P” here stands for “Pre-convention specimens.”

20: This is the country where the ivory was taken from. I spoke to Heckel about this and they told me that they used to use a supplier, so they’re not sure what the exact country of origin was. “XX” is sufficient here.

Now for the BAD news

Inspections are only done at no-cost during business hours (typically 8am-4pm) Monday through Friday. If you’re traveling through the designated port outside of these hours, you’ll need to pay a $105 overtime fee to the inspector. You can see that I got hit with this fee for arriving at 5:30pm in Miami on a Friday on this 3-177 form:

$105 fee at the bottom

$105 fee at the bottom

I had already booked this flight before I knew about the ivory rules and it would have cost more to change my flight than this fee. The wildlife inspector will either meet you in their office or at the airport, inspect the ivory, and stamp your certificate and 3-177 form. It’s definitely a good idea to call them ahead of time if you’ve never dealt with their branch before.

A downside to using the certificate is that it’s incredibly expensive if you travel through one of the non-designated ports (which is most of the country). You would need to fill out a Designated Port Exception Permit, which is $100. Plus, the inspection fee is not waived: it’s $238 each way. If you notice on the map above, there are no designated ports on either the Canadian or Mexican borders, so if you wanted to drive across the border, it would cost $576 ($238 x 2 + $100). For example, to legally travel with ivory from Rochester, NY to Toronto, ON, you would either have to pay $576 for two non-designated port inspections or fly through a designated port, like New York, instead of drive.

Step Three: Using the Instrument Passport Internationally

Ok, so you successfully used the CITES certificate and are on your way to an exciting, foreign land. Now what?

After landing in the foreign country that you’re traveling to (connecting flights do not matter), you need to track down the customs office. Be cordial with the customs officers and explain that they need to inspect the ivory and stamp your form. This is the second page of the Musical Instrument Certificate:

My CITES "Stamp Page"

My CITES “Stamp Page”

For my first trip last May, I have a stamp leaving Miami, arriving in Frankfurt, leaving Frankfurt, arriving in Paris, leaving Paris, and arriving in Miami. The second line is unnecessary, and I could have gotten by with just a stamp entering Frankfurt and a stamp leaving Paris. While you have to have an appointment set up to get the inspection done at a Fish and Wildlife Service office in the US, foreign customs offices in airports are generally open 24/7 and do not require appointments. There are no fees involved with them stamping your form, either. 2 days before you return to the US, make sure you email the proper FWS office to set up your appointment. Call them once you land in the airport.

Why I Had My Ivory Removed

This was a difficult decision and one I had thought about for a long time. I intend to continue traveling internationally with my instrument quite a bit and didn’t appreciate that my itineraries were being dictated by which airports were designated ports. There are approximately 162 international airports in the US, but only 16 mainland ones are designated ports. Being forced to travel Monday-Friday between 8am-4pm is also incredibly constricting. Most orchestral auditions take place on Mondays, so the most common day to travel is Sunday. If there’s an audition in Toronto or Calgary and you want to avoid the $105 overtime fee, you’d have to travel on Friday and get 2 extra nights in a hotel, which would for sure cost more than $105.

My bell on the lathe before having the ivory removed

My bell on the lathe before having the ivory removed

I had my ivory removed in April 2015 and even though I resisted it for a year, it has put my mind at ease. In November I was playing with an orchestra in Ontario and borrowed another bassoon to not have to deal with these impossible ivory laws while crossing back and forth by car. I took an audition in Canada last year and used someone else’s bell and played on a Franken-bassoon. I’m all for the protection of elephants, but I personally believe that enacting blanket laws that punish the wrong people (musicians with 40+ year old ivory that they most likely didn’t order themselves) and creating impossible hoops to jump through is the wrong way to go about it.

Here’s a video of the lathe removing the ivory.

My repairman did a fantastic job removing it and the plastic ring that he created looks almost identical to the original and has had no effect on the sound. I’ve seen bassoons that have “gone under the knife” have their ring replaced with either plastic, wood, or a metal ring (which actually requires adding wood to the bell). I chose plastic because it looked the most similar to my original ring, but remember to always consult with your bassoon doctor on which option is best for you.



New Plastic Ring

New Plastic Ring

Which of the three options you choose (doing nothing, getting the permit, or removal), dear readers, is up to you.

If you do choose to have it removed, make sure you receive a Manufacture’s Affidavit confirming the ivory’s destruction and replacement. Here’s a copy of mine:

Letter confirming ivory destruction

Letter confirming ivory destruction

If you have any questions about these laws or the process of getting/using the Musical Instrument Certificate, PLEASE ask below! There is a lot of misinformation being spread. Please also forward this article to anyone you know who might have ivory on their instrument and subscribe on the right/like us on Facebook to be notified of future posts.


Anatomy of a Free Audition Part Three: Getting Around There


The Southwest Companion Pass and How to Get It


  1. It is important to note that while all of these steps are fine, it is NOT possible to obtain any of these documents if you purchased the instrument after the new legislation went into effect. If you bought the bassoon after 2013, you won’t be able to get the certificate. I don’t remember the details, but I believe the buyer in this situation isn’t breaking the law, but they are also now unable to legally sell the item again. Essentially the law allows you to sell your item, (or gift it) but the new owner no longer has any protection under the CITES law to get the passport, AND is not legally allowed to sell the item again. It’s a bit complicated, but the law basically has a loophole to allow the thing to be sold one more time, but that’s it. Either way, the new owner of your bassoon or violin bow won’t be able to travel with it or legally sell it.

    You might as well get the ivory removed.

    • Joey

      February 25th, 2014 is the cut off date for purchasing an instrument/bow with ivory. If you can prove both that the ivory was taken from the wild before February 26th, 1976 and that you purchased it before February 25th, 2014, you can get a CITES permit. You can legally sell an instrument with ivory to someone, they just won’t be able to get a permit for it and would have to remove it if they aim to travel internationally with it (legally).

  2. Anonymous

    Now, if we could apply this much effort and expense in to doing something that would actually help save the elephants.

  3. Jim

    My fear is traveling with my bow that has mastodon ivory and having the customs agent think it’s elephant ivory. Fish and Wildlife have been good at returning my emails, but I seem not to be able to make them understand the issue. They keep telling me to a CITES, but you aren’t eligible for one if it’s mastodon ivory you’re traveling with.

    • Joey

      Walrus, warthog, hippopotamus, mammoth and mastodon ivory are all legal to travel with without documentation. The Schreger lines on each type of ivory is different, so a trained wildlife inspector should know the difference. If you’re worried, I would recommend getting an official document that states that it’s mastodon ivory.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Very helpful!

  5. This proves that we need to elect more congressmen who have actually played an instrument. If it affected anybody making significant money, it would have been legislatively fixed instantly. I can’t believe the years of passive, polite reaction to this. Classical music performance must inoculate humans against criminal tendencies.

  6. Anonymous

    I wished that this information was available to me back in ’95. My ivory frog was in need of restoration and I sent only the frog via commercial express carriers to the restorers address…. my package never arrived! About a week later I got a notice from my express carriers saying that I had violated international law in sending overseas illegal contraband. A lawyer friend checked into it and told me of all places to send an item that was considered illegal contraband. … I had to send my frog there! It was a long nightmare, the frog was destroyed and a painful lesson learned.

  7. LauraN

    My husband restores antique pianos. Manufacturing records are rarely available for instruments over a hundred years old. He’s got a couple that are more than 200 years old. He’s not shipping them internationally, but he isn’t sure he can legally ship a piano with intact ivories into or out of NY state. And I hate to break it to everyone, but those elephants that were killed 200 years ago would be dead by now anyway.

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