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Red alert: all musical instruments entering Germany must now go through the RED customs channel

You will remember the recent cases where violins were seized at German airports. Well, the authorities have today issued clear guidelines, as follows:

German Customs and the Finance Ministry are making it clear to all concerned that anyone carrying a musical instrument is required to pass through the RED channel when entering the country and the instrument is deemed to be used for commercial (professional) purposes.

Papers have to be supplied to the customs authorities showing the value of the instrument and it has to be declared to the customs agents. They are suggesting that everyone should obtain an ATA carnet to speed up proceedings.

All artists and orchestras on tour should be aware that when travelling in and out of Germany they have to declare their instruments with the proper papers through the RED customs exit.


Here’s the document: 02_13_Zollverf

And here’s an updated advisory.

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  1. Frank-Michael Fischer says:

    This ofcourse holds only true, IF you have to pass customs at all. Which is not the case for most of internal EU travel.

    • So Frank, More conection to other european places rather then direct fly one to Germany as I see.

      • Frank-Michael Fischer says:

        Yes, you are right, basically. Out of own experience I would not recommend Italy for entering the EU, though. Especially not when entering on Fridays or weekends.

  2. Michael Tavernaro says:

    This paper is very, very unclear and I believe it cannot really be executed.

    It says : If you use your instrument commercially or professionally, then you need to declare it
    and you need to use the red exit.

    So now : How can someone proof, that he / she is not professional or maybe a professional, but on holiday and not entering the country for work.

    This paper was made after 2 incidents with very expensive violins, seems this is something personal…
    Anyway it also refers to a website for more interesting (!) info, which will be introduced by the minister of culture in April.

    Just bullshit – any professional musicians has the right to take his instrument with him, this paper is just for information on a very low and even nearly personal level. Not thought through at all and it will never hold up,
    specially it is impossible to execute it.

    • Bystander says:

      True, what about business professionals bringing laptops?

    • Michael Tavernaro says:
      January 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      “This paper is very, very unclear and I believe it cannot really be executed.

      It says : If you use your instrument commercially or professionally, then you need to declare it
      and you need to use the red exit.

      So now : How can someone proof, that he / she is not professional or maybe a professional, but on holiday and not entering the country for work.”

      I don’t really know how this works in the EU because I am an EU citizen, but I would guess that if you come into the EU to work, be it as a musician or in any other profession, you need to have some kind of work visa or permit. When I enter the US where I currently live, I have to show my work visa, too, and I can bring in tools and other work related stuff. If you show up at the border with a lot of tools on a tourist visa, you may have some explaining to do.
      When I go to Canada just for fun, I can just go, but when I show up at the border with a bunch of tools and test equipment (and it says in my US work visa that is glued into my passport that I am an engineer), they will want to know what I am up to.

      • Michael, even on your examples it is not for sure. I’ve got a tourist visa for the US. I’m always arriving with cameras (Including professional ones), laptop and other things, including one time a bottle of single malt that a received in Mexico as a gift (Not on the hand luggage). A simple question by the US boarder officer was always the maximum. Actually, in general I’m always well treated on the US border, besides twice or 3 times get in and out per year since 2000. I think incidents happens occasionally by mistake or just due to bad hair day of one of the officers in every country. Perhaps, this new statement will be nice to be used during this bad hair days in Germany, if not applied to every case. There are no controls over occasional excess committed by any boarder officer in any place, I think.

        The funny thing is Germany is the country that also chase anyone that put almost anything on YouTube or Vime. I like the country, but seems that they really take to serious things about “boarders”. (Please, it is not necessary to remind me that they can do it. I’m not saying they are outlaws, just outdated perhaps).

        • I know that copyright protection is taken very seriously in Germany, but that doesn’t have much to do with “borders”. It’s intellectual property and it applies to anyone’s intellectual property, not just that created within German borders.
          I think you are less likely to run into an official with a “bad hair day” when you enter Germany. They have very strict rules about how they have to act and what questions to ask. They don’t try to catch terrorists at the border by asking people trick questions, like they often do at the US border (including with US citizens). They leave that up to the intelligence and police agencies. I actually talked about that to some border guards at the airport in Frankfurt when I last visited Germany.

          When you travel to the US with your pro cameras, do you travel there to do professional photography or are you just a tourist who takes his photo hobby very seriously?

          • Hello Michael.The German “borders” over copyrights on internet was a tongue in cheek. Concerning your question, always photo hobby. However, Boarder officers had never made a question about those equipment, but about other things probably more important. Besides it, what are the requirements to disguise? if perhaps I’ve sell one of this pics, it is going to start to be professional? But it happens later and outside the US, and when I took it I was not intending to sell. How officer borders can know? If Myself had not idea at that time. They want to know if you are going to be living illegally and working inside the US, just it.

          • Rgiarola says:
            January 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

            “They want to know if you are going to be living illegally and working inside the US, just it.”

            That always cracks me up. As if people who intend to work in the US would tell them about that at the border! I currently live in Boston and at least half of all the Irish guys who frequent the pub down the block are illegal residents who came here – in some cases many years ago – as tourists and just stayed. I guess none of them told the border guards what they were really up to when they entered the country.

    • Although the paper seems clear concerning professionals, it is an interesting question when you consider that there are many international music festivals and summer courses for amateur and student musicians all over Europe. Some might enter an EU country from another EU country, in which case there are no red and green exits/entry points at all. Others might fly in from non-EU countries where these regulations would apply.

      There are obvious problems here because although professional musicians who tour regularly know (or should know) that they need to have certain documents, many instruments belonging to amateur musicians or students have been passed down through the family over generations, and there is no proof of ownership in most cases, nor is there any current appraisal document which might indicate the value of the instrument. Customs officials certainly cannot tell what an instrument might be worth. (OMG…)

      In this case, the festival organizations should instruct their participants about the proper customs documents they should get before embarking on their travels. The other problem here is that many of these amateur festivals are not professionally managed, mostly because they operate on a shoestring budget.

    • I don’t quite see the problem.
      If you are travelling with something expensive – be that an instrument, painting, sculpture, diamonds… – it is reasonable for a country to be able to see that you do own that item, in order to be satisfied that you are not smuggling it in.
      You wouldn’t expect dealers to run around the world with expensive instruments of $m of jewels without declaring them would you? Any rule which would prevent that would require instrumentalists to declare their instruments, that’s just how it is.

      It shouldn’t be difficult for any professional musician to travel with the right papers; and those who go through a Red Channel and talk to the customs officers, in my experience (having travelled with a lot of equipment in a similar manner) are generally treated well. It’s when they think you are sneaking through Green without declaring that they get upset.
      For an amateur musician I agree it is less easy. But travelling with proof of your full-time job (out of music) or a sworn Solicitor’s note, plus details of the likely relatively low-value of your instrument (signed certificate from a dealer, insurance paperwork) should suffice.

      I assume any professional musician coming to the EU would intend having a full work visa in any case, so this is just an addition for that.

      I would argue that the work visa requirements are too strict, and that this measure is too: but I’m afraid it’s the “collateral damage” for imposing rules to catch out “the others”.

  3. Presumably if you are an EU citizen travelling to or via Germany then this draconian rule will not apply?

    Also, the letter doesn’t make clear what actually happens when the musician goes through the red channel. He/she apparently provides papers showing the value of the instrument, but then what? Is there going to be some kind of charge to pay and if so, how much? Perhaps in typical German bureaucratic style: a large ink stamp appears and the magic word “Genehmigt” “Approved” is stamped on the instrument for all to see. I jest, but only slightly…

    Additionally I’m guessing the customs goons would want to ensure that what’s described on the paperwork is what’s in the case. Any musician on here will know how nerve-wracking it is to have to hand over your “baby” to someone who may not know the correct way to handle a violin (for example) i.e. don’t put your grubby fingers on the varnish, don’t hold by the scroll, pegs, bridge, strings etc etc etc. In fact, don’t touch my violin at all unless you want to be throttled by my spare strings. Makes me shudder even thinking about it.

    • Asking professionals who enter a foreign country with tools of their trade to declare those tools is not “draconian”. Me and my colleagues have to do that all the time when we travel with tools and test equipment. And since some of that stuff is really expensive, we are also prepared to show that we legally own the stuff and that we use it for the professional purposes declared. Especially since in some of the guest countries, there may be tariffs applicable for the import of such expensive equipment, so they want to make sure we don’t smuggle it in to sell it.

      • Yes but there are several legal issues there. First I am not a luthier but I made few violins as an amateur. one of which I use to practice also I am certainly not a professional musician. How will it work in this case? Also, and this has already been hinted, I live in France so that I don’t need to take the plane to go to Germany, and so no frontier for em to cross anymore. So no need to get a carnet (which is not free if I understand). But if an English wants to come to germany with a violin he/she made just to practice, he/she will most likely fly and have to go through custom. A carnet will therefore be required. that will create a double status inside Europe itself.

        • Do you have to go through customs when you fly within the EU?

          I have no idea what the legal situation is in your case, but I guess if you make violins as a hobby, they are probably not worth all that much (no offense!), so it may be easy to get the right paperwork stating that they are what they are from a “real” luthier.

  4. I am an American violist living and working in Germany. How will this apply to me (and the many others like me) if and when I fly into the country? Does anyone know? Does Germany even know?

    • I would imagine you would have to get a Carnet ATA for your instrument, always declare it using the red exit and show the carnet as some sort of passport. Incredible, when you think that this will cost most people over $300 and carnets are vaild only for one year. I heard there also was a (free?) alternative, that is registering your instrument with customs before departure (” Nämlichkeitsbescheinigung”, I think) and then showing the form upon your return to Germany… but I’m not 100% sure.

    • If you work in Germany, you likely have a permanent residency certificate in your passport. This, combined with the documents for your instrument should be enough.

      Let’s be clear, the goal of German Customs is not to hassle orchestral musicians, it is to collect whatever taxes or duty are due on instruments purchased abroad intended for use or resale in Germany or elsewhere in the EU. There have been a couple of cases of musicians having undocumented instruments confiscated which have received much attention, but they are likely the exceptional mistakes that we hear about rather than the legitimate attempts to avoid fees that we don’t hear about. The violin trade, in particular, is sadly one with a highly checkered history and the attraction of avoiding customs and VAT on valuable instruments is likely to be very high, so a customs agent who does not pay attention to instruments is simply not doing his or her job.

      Now, it may well be that you disagree with the entire notion of duties and sales taxes on musical instruments, but that is another discussion, and one that needs to be made in a political arena.

    • If you live and work in a foreign country, isn’t it up to you to inform yourself about the legal framework of your residency and travel to/from your guest country?

      • d1966 and GW – thank you for your helpful messages.
        Michael – Since I just moved here and this is a new regulation, I am trying to inform myself as best I can. There is no need to be rude. Of course it’s up to me to inform myself and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. It seems, however, that nobody really knows the answers to my questions and since I am not yet fluent in German, I am limited in the research I can do on my own. My post to this board was to try to get more information from a body of international musicians who may know more than I do.

  5. What if you’re a soloist who travels with an expensive instrument that’s on loan to you? getting a carnet for a million-dollar violin often requires a deposit, of up to 40$ of its value. If this is really enforced EU-wide, soloists from outside the EU would no longer be able to travel there to perform.

  6. That’s ridiculous. What about youth orchestras, students and amateur musicians? How do they plan on differentiating those?
    I remember being kindly lent an oboe from an American college for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. They posted it to me in Germany, and erroneously put it’s value on the form at $2000. Customs seized it, and I spent the next three days proving it was a loan, getting a special customs certificate, and depositing value added tax plus customs tax to the government, before I was allowed to take it and fly to Iraq with it. Complete waste of my time and money.
    On returning to Germany, customs packaged it up for me, sealed it with a customs seal, gave me a form for the post office to fill out and stamp, which I then took to the post office and got completed on sending the oboe back to the US, then posted the form back to customs to refund me the tax.
    I also have no idea how my band, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, would have gotten to Beethovenfest in 2011 under this regulation, as carnets are not easy to come by in Iraq, or how they would have fared explaining in Kurdish and Arabic that they were an unpaid youth orchestra!

    • Paul, presumably someone for on on behalf of the NYOIraq was able to speak other than Kurdish/Arabic, given that the orchestra managed to complete whatever programme, travel and VISA requirements were made for their appearance in 2011.
      Most Youth Orchestras of my acquaintance go on the occasional foreign tour, and they generally compile a manifest of the instruments and associated items that accompany them.
      If colleagues make recordings abroad – particularly in Switzerland or outside the European Union (say Russia or Japan), writing up a carnet and assembling required documentation (we all do more than is strictly necessary for safety) is par for the course. There’s absolutely no reason why a travelling musician shouldn’t do the same.
      Are you suggesting an exemption for Youth Orchestras, say? If so, what’s to stop an unscrupulous dealer from smuggling instruments with high taxable value through youth orchestra travel? Easily done…

    • People traveling as members of a group can be requested to be processed as a group, so they don’t have to explain what they are up to every single one of them. And it is easy to explain where the group is going when they travel to already arranged concert dates, which is, of course, practically always the case when an orchestra travels. If you find all that too challenging, you may find it worth hiring a tour professional from an agency to help you with all that next time. Artists, bands, and orchestras travel all over the world all the time, to and from places with much stricter and more complex customs requirements than Germany or any EU country. It’s not a big deal.

  7. Lukas Fierz says:

    Following some unhappy experiences with a violin at the Zürich airport customs we had to learn about this situation and especially about the carnet ATA. I’ m not a lawyer and the following may contain some slight inaccuracies, but the essential points are these:

    If you travel with an object and the carnet ATA both have to be shown at each passing of a border to and from the EU, and on both sides of the border.

    This means if you are living in the EU and you have one concert in Istanbul you have to show your instrument and have your carnet ATA stamped four (!) times. Instrument and carnet ATA have also to be showed if you cross any border outside the EU (again on both sides, say if you travel from Australia to Japan).

    Each time the violin has to be identified, controlled and the carnet stamped so that the journey of the instrument can be completely tracked. If one stamp is lacking the carnet can become invalid and the violin can be seized as illegal contraband at the next border. In the case of an expensive violin taxes and fines may amount to many hundredthousand Euros.

    So far so good. But how practicable ist this for a travelling soloist who often plays 100 concerts a year and passes borders every week on a tight schedule and often during weekends, odd hours or in the middle of the night? Fortunately we never had to use a carnet ATA up to now, but from personal experience it can be said that its use would be very difficult.

    Say you have to cross the Swiss-German border in Konstanz (either way) on a Sunday afternoon. The customs offices are closed, so you will be unable to get the necessary documents and you will run into trouble when crossing the next border. Of course you should have gotten half of the paperwork before the weekend, and the other half you could then complete on the other side of the border on Monday, just look up the offices and their opening hours and lose half a day twice by going there… that is to say if you do not have a further travel, a rehearsal or a concert on these times.

    Trains traveling between France or Germany and Switzerland have half of the time no customs control on board of the train. This means that you have to leave the train at the border station, lose an hour (if you are lucky) or much more (if you are unlucky) to get the necessary stamps. If the offices are closed you again run into trouble. The Swiss customs administration advises that one has to phone to the customs office before using a train to make sure that there will be customs personnel on board!

    Say you fly on a tour from France to Antalya you will have to find the offices to do your paperwork in France and Antalya, but such offices are often well hidden and/or closed due to siesta, strike or absenteeism, especially in small airports. Then you again run into trouble. Probably one should also phone a week before to find out when and where to be controlled and stamped.

    If you fly from Berlin to Switzerland or Moscow you have to do this paperwork before departure and on arrival. But if you arrive by flight in Bern airport on weekends or evenings you often will not find any customs officials, again you then probably should lose half a day by going to a bureau or to the airport next day, that is if you are still available and not aready in Italy or whatever…

    In each case the control means that the violin has to be handled on each border twice by customs officials of both adjoining countries. These are often rough men, more used to deal with criminals and drug smugglers, they may be impolite, smoking, unclean or even drunk.

    My brother happens to have worked for a Swiss firm specialising in chemical process safety and doing business over the whole of Europe. They often have expensive apparatus with them. For this they routinely use the carnet ATA. But – unlike musicians – they work and travel during office hours, so customs officials are normally available. But even so the paperwork is so complicated that they need a full time customs specialist only for this! Nevertheless the waiting times at borders sometimes amount to hours.

    Considering such arguments the Swiss authorities fortunately realised that the carnet ATA is not a workable option for a busy traveling musician. For musicians resident in Switzerland and having a precious violin or cello on loan from Japan or from a EU-country they introduced a Salomonic solution in 2011: The musician can apply for a passport for such an instrument which allows him to use the green channel when entering Switzerland. Musicians owning an instrument can anyway use the green channel.

    Of course, if a musician buys an instrument abroad and imports it into Switzerland he still has to use the red channel, declare it and pay the applicable customs and taxes.

    Lets hope that the German authorities will also realise that the carnet ATA is not a practical solution for travelling musicians and introduce some sort of instrument passport.


  8. Tobias Schmitt says:

    I guess, you meant “40%” instead of “40$”, Augustin? ;-)

    As a German native speaker, I wouldn’t understand this update – or reminder – on a regulation, that’s obviously been existing for quite a while, as dramatical as most of the commentators. Which doesn’t mean at all, that I’m a supporter of German bureaucracy and that I think, musicians should be treated this way.
    But as I understand it, it’s only necessary, that musicians, who intend to use their instrument professionally when in Germany, just use this so-called “red exit” when passing the customs and won’t have any trouble, won’t even have to show their instrument, leave alone having to accept some non-expert touching it, if they have this “Carnet ATA” with them, which they can acquire (as written) quite easily by using the mentionned link and which might be very useful in many other states worldwide with similar regulations.
    It says, in Germany, the “Industrie- und Handelskammer” will edit this carnet (I’m wondering, if those guys know anything about musical instruments, though…), but there must be an agency or governmental department in other countries, too, issuing this paper, I guess.
    So, maybe two minutes more spent passing the customs (instead of waiting at the baggage belt, perhaps…) and one (perhaps annoying) effort to get a document, that’s very useful for the frequent traveller – that’s all!

    And who knows, maybe other countries will come up with even more “draconic” custom regulations soon (I’ve heard about whole orchestras spending hours at the customs in Russia, e.g., although they had all necessary documents and announced their visit long in advance. If you understand German, here are two reports: )??

    • yes, sorry, I meant 40% for the carnet deposit – that’s the amount that the US chamber of commerce requires – think about it, for a violin worth 5 million dollars (a Stradivari), that would be a 2 million dollar deposit!
      These amounts vary depending on what country you get the carnet in, but even if it’s 5 percent of value, that’s still a $250,000 deposit.
      That’s not something one can do, especially for an instrument on loan.
      In addition, it can take a long time to get your carnet stamped, and you have to do so both when exiting any country, and entering any country.

      • And how many people are there running around with a $5m Stradivari under their arm? Are you?

        I am not a fan of customs and paperwork either, especially since I have been on an US work visa for a number of years, and it’s a lot of paperwork and hassle to live and work in the US *legally*, even if you’ve already been here for years. But that’s a different story. Look at it this way: strict customs regulations like these may make it a little harder to smuggle stolen valuable instruments or artwork, protected species etc. I watched a docu about customs at LAX the other day, you wouldn’t believe what some people try to smuggle. And I am not talking about drugs. One guy showed up with a whole suitcase full of live exotic spiders (eeeew!) stuffed into glass tubes…

  9. Tobias Schmitt says:

    O.K., I see, Lukas Fiersz, it’s much more complicated, than I thought…Just forget about most of my former comment. It was written before I’ve read yours. Sorry to be so uninformed!

  10. Ultimately, the question for authorities is not whether you make money from your instrument or not, but whether you intend to leave with it again, or sell it illegally.

    As the passport fee is judged by the value of instruments, this will be prohibitively expensive for members of orchestras and impossible for youth orchestras like mine, in a non-Carnet land. Bringing a bass drum into Iraq from Vienna for two weeks cost me €300 to hire, and €2000 to get in and out of the country, and that was with the in-kind sponsorship from Conceptum Logistics, who do Simon de Bolivar and West/East Divan. I wouldn’t have done it at all without their support.

  11. As if the struggles of being a musician isnt already hard. This seems like it wasnt well thought off. Lets hope they do the same with watches
    would be fun to the long queues declaring their expensive watches. Starve off the German watch makers industries

  12. No customs agents get to actually handle my viola.

    I explain to them that I am happy to take it out and show it to them but they may not

    touch it as they have no training on how to do so safely. If they are not able to let me pass

    then I won’t take the flight. So far I have not missed any flights but I’m sure one day I will.

  13. This is what the letter says:
    The Comisioner of the Federal Government for Culture and Media

    Re: Customs Procedures during the International Arrival and Departure with valuable Instruments
    Information for legal behaviour with Instruments carried as Luggage

    Concerning; Instrument confiscations by Customs in August 2012

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

    In August 2012, as a result of random checks at a German Airport, Customs officials (temporarily) confiscated 2 historical musical instruments. Two professional musicians had, rather than walking through the red gate for wares to be declared, walked through the green gate for wares that needn’t be declared, with their instruments. With the choice of the wrong gate, they had violated Customs regulations.

    The Federal finance Ministry reminds, once again, that professional musicians should always declare the instruments in their luggage in the red channel. The green channel may, regardless of the value of the wares, only be used with objects that do not have a commercial use. This does not include objects that are used in the perusal of a profession, and is why these Musicians were obliged to have used the red exit. In both cases it was possible to achieve a belated registration of the instruments after documents had been presented later.

    Since the question of instrument transportation plays a role for you, in the perusal of your profession, I would beg to indicate with the following suggestions, how ones behaviour in Customs should be, and hope, with your support, to hinder the occurrence of similar cases.

    Professionally used objects are on arrival in the Federal Republic of Germany, always to be brought through the red exit for goods to declare, even when all (still necessary) documents proving the freedom from Customs and the legality of the bringing into the Federal Republic are carried with the instrument. To speed the process of bringing professionally used instruments, and avoid the necessity to prove the customs freedom and legality of use in the EU, musicians can apply for a so called “Carnet ATA” for their instrument. With this document, one can enter, exit or travel through with the item of cultural or scientific use, and document the customs status with simplicity. The “Carnet ATA” is valid in all countries that are signatories to the ATA-Treaty. In Germany it is issued by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. More exact information is to be found on the web site of the Customs (link) or by googleing “zoll carnet ata”.

    As a further information, I would like to direct your attention to a Online-Handbook from the International Theatre Institute, together with the International Society of Visual Art. The Online Portal is programmed to be opened by Secretary of State for Culture, Neumann on 18th April 2013, and will contain further interesting information

    With friendly Greetings
    Martin Eifler

  14. To this non-musician, it does seem like a proliferation of red tape & persiflage – and should, I feel be addressed by Brussels…. :)

  15. Here’s some more information about Carnet system

    I spoke with someone here in Toronto about it who informed me that they can do some sort of security bond for whatever you are bringing in to the tune of $300 on every $30,000. OR pay 40% of the value as a security bond. I believe it’s returnable, but a gigantic pain in the ass. Sounds like Machold’s dealings were the straw that broke the camels back.

    • PS. This is information from Canada and provides a list of all the Carnet accepting countries.

    • So what’s the difference between $300 on every $30,000 and 40% of the value as a security bond? Is the latter returnable, but the former isn’t? Is that why the former is so much cheaper?

      • I believe they are all returnable, but the channels of red tape are different. Still looking into this and reading a pile of legal jargon associated with it. I imagine if it weren’t returnable that this would put a giant damper on every touring musician who isn’t a billionaire with pools of money at their disposal.

  16. If you need more info from the horses mouth of German customs email I’m sure they can inform better than any of us what the protocol is for entering the EU with an instrument.

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