For Musicians: What Is A Carnet, Why Do You Need One, And What Do You Do With One?

A carnet (pronounced ‘kar-nay’) is a kind of passport for musical equipment. The ATA Carnet (to use the correct name) permits tax- and duty-free import and export of your gear into 87 countries and acts as a ‘bond’. Having a carnet says that you are taking music gear into a different country, and you will not sell that gear while in that country. If you do sell it, you will pay the tax to that country (the bond part). Obviously you will not sell your equipment when you perform abroad, and the carnet is still necessary to show, when requested, a list of the your equipment to avoid paying importation and exportation duty on your gear.

Countries where you need a carnet

The Wikipedia entry for ATA Carnet is good and shows that there are 87 countries that accept a carnet.

UK artists

Artist’s from the UK do not need a carnet for their gear when performing in other EU countries, and will need one for gigs in popular NON-EU touring destinations such as the USA, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway.
A Chamber of Commerce (CoC) will issue a carnet and the artist’s tour manager could arrange for her local CoC to do so. However, specialised companies will also arrange for a carnet to be issued to a touring act. These companies understand concert touring and how to deal with a CoC. A search on Showcase Music will return relevant results.

US and Canadian artists

I’m based in the UK and so have never had to get a carnet issued in the US or Canada – I will have a carnet raised in the UK for import and export to the US and Canada. My understanding is the Chambers of Commerce in each city or district are responsible, and again, there are specialised companies that can get the paperwork done and the carnet issued to you. A quick Google search should turn up relevant results.

How to get an ATA Carnet

The first step in getting a proper ATA Carnet is to itemise every piece of equipment that will travel abroad, from the largest bass cabinet to the smallest USB stick. Each piece should have its country of origin, a serial number (if applicable), its weight and size, and its current value, listed. You, or your tour manager, should put this information in a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet will be used by the CoC (or specialised company) as part of the carnet application process. Figure 001 shows a completed equipment list for an ATA Carnet – this is not the carnet itself.

Weighing and measuring your gear can be difficult and time-consuming. You will need an accurate tape measure and a set of hand weighing scales to accurately record the sizes and weights of your equipment.

picture of a list of equipment to be inluded in an ATA carnet
Figure 001. A spreadsheet containing a list of all the equipment that will travel with the band on tour.

The cost of a carnet

The price of the carnet depends on the value of the equipment that is being imported and exported and the destination countries. A carnet for a 4-piece UK -based rock band touring Europe and Scandinavia, including Switzerland and Norway, would be about £350.00. This assumes the total value of their musical equipment is £20,000.

How to use an ATA Carnet

An ATA carnet itself is a book of vouchers and counterfoils which must be authorised on leaving the home country (The Carnet Origin Country or TCOC), on entry to the other country, on departure from that country, and on re-entry to TCOC. This process is called ‘stamping’ (as in, ‘I need to get my carnet stamped’) and takes place at the borders of each country when traveling by road, or at dedicated offices in airports and ferry terminals.

Example of using a carnet – touring by road

The counterfoils and vouchers are bound into sequential pages in the carnet. I will use the example of a UK band touring in a splitter van to explain how the process works. Imagine the band are performing in France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, and so the band will need to have a carnet to avoid paying importation and exportation tax for their show in Zurich, the capital of Switzerland.

Dover – departure ferry port

The band would get the Green Cover of the carnet stamped by Her Majesties Customs and Revenue (HMRC) before leaving the UK, and completing the Exportation Counterfoil and Voucher (see figure 002 below). They would do this at the ferry port before crossing the Channel. HMRC are based in the offices of Motis, a freighting specialist, at Dover, and the band would have to call in there to get the carnet stamped.

An ATA carnet for musical equipment
Figure 002: An ATA carnet for musical equipment.

Calais – arrival ferry port

The band need not get the carnet stamped on arrival in France. The United Kingdom and France are both in the EU and the ATA Carnet treats the EU as one area.

Swiss border – going in

The band perform shows in France and Germany and then head over from Germany into Switzerland. They will need to present the carnet to officials at the German – Swiss border. They should present the White importation counterfoil to the Swiss Customs officials for completion and stamping. They will also complete and keep the white importation voucher and the band will enter the country without having to pay import and export duties on their equipment.
Customs offices are theoretically open 24 hours a day and you may have difficulty locating the correct office and an awake official if crossing the border in the early hours of the morning.

Swiss border – going out

The band must adhere to the sequential order of the vouchers and counterfoils, and this is important when leaving a foreign country. Here, our band have played there show in Zurich (Switzerland) and are heading to Germany for another show. They must stop at the Swiss border on the way out and get the carnet stamped. This means getting the white re-exportation vouchers and counterfoil stamped and making sure the authorities complete the re-exportation counterfoil. In my experience it is this leaving/re-exportation counterfoil is the one that causes the most problems. Make sure you pay attention when getting a carnet stamped on leaving a country; don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer – make sure that counterfoil is filled in and stamped, and that customs officials take the voucher.

Going into Germany (back into the EU)

The band must then get the re-importation vouchers and counterfoils stamped for entry into the TCOC. The band can do this at the German border, as Germany and the UK are in the EU. Here this means the band crossing the road to the German side of the Swiss-German border, and asking the German authorities to complete the re-importation voucher, and complete and stamp the re-importation counterfoil. This final stamping now means the equipment is re-imported to the TCOC.
The band could have waited until they got back to the Dover (UK) ferry port to get the carnet stamped, and it is as easy to do it on re-entry to a neighbouring EU country – as they did here.

Transiting a country

Travelling by road means you may cross a country without performing there. You may have to cross Switzerland if touring from France to Italy for instance. You would use the Blue Transit vouchers in the carnet, instead of importation vouchers, in this case, making sure you get those vouchers stamped on your way back out of Switzerland.

Example of using a carnet – travelling by air

I will describe the process for using a carnet when travelling by air, using the example of an artist travelling from New York to Denmark for a show at Roskilde festival.

JFK – departure airport

Imagine you are travelling with a small band, and laptops, MIDI controllers ( AKAI APC 40 MK2, SPD-SX, Novation LaunchKey Mini, etc.). You or your tour manager has raised a carnet in the previous weeks and now you must present it to US Customs for stamping. This is done at the Custom Border Protection (CBP) offices, one of which is located in each terminal at JFK – look for ‘CBP Ships Offices’. The offices are difficult to find, and are in the arrivals hall of each terminal, which is inconvenient when you are flying out of the airport! My advice is to add another hour to your expected check-in time allowance (four hours instead of three) to allow for finding the office and getting the carnet stamped. And, here’s the kicker, the CBP may want to inspect the gear listed in the carnet before stamping it. This means taking the gear with you to the CBP Ships office – wherever that may be.
It is then a matter of making sure the CBP staff complete the vouchers and counterfoils to show you are leaving TCOC with your gear.

Copenhagen – arrival airport

You must find the relevant customs people when you arrive in Denmark and get your carnet stamped before leaving the airport. This will mean collecting your equipment and luggage from the carousel and looking for signs that say ‘Customs’ (or the local version of) and taking the gear and the carnet to those offices. I research destination airports before I set off and have found that most give decent maps or indications of where customs offices are located. Most times you can go through the ‘something to declare’ channel on your way out of the airport and get your carnet stamped there. You must make sure you get the Importation vouchers and counterfoils stamped though – before you check-in to fly out of the country. You may find a customs office in a nearby city if you forget to get stamped at the airport, and that can be a PITA.
It is polite to inform runners and promoters ahead of time that you need to get your paperwork completed before leaving the airport. It can take some time to get your carnet stamped, and people sent to pick you up from the airport may wonder where you are!

Copenhagen – departure airport

OK, you tore up the stage at Roskilde festival and you are now leaving to fly back to the US. As with road travel, you must stamp the carnet as re-exporting your gear before you fly. You won’t be able to pass through the ‘something to declare’ channel at departures to do this (there isn’t one), so use Google to find the location of the relevant offices at the airport. Observe the customs people to double-check they have completed the re-exportation counterfoil – you will be in big trouble when you land back at JFK if they haven’t!

JFK – arrival airport

Getting your carnet stamped on arrival back at JFK is easier than on departure as the CBP Ships offices are in the arrivals hall at each terminal. You should collect your gear from the carousel and head to the offices, or flag the attention of a CBP official, who will escort you to get your carnet stamped for re-entry into TCOC.

‘Closing’ an ATA Carnet

A carnet needs to be ‘closed’ after the gear has returned to TCOC. ‘Closing’ involves checking the carnet to make sure the vouchers and counterfoils have been used, and there are no discrepancies with either. The carnet can be closed at the border on entry back into TCOC and it is safer to wait and get the issuing authority (the chamber of commerce) to do this by returning it to them (via the specialised carnet company if you used one).

Merchandise (‘merch’)

The ATA Carnet allows for the tax-free movement of musical equipment (amongst other things). A carnet is not applicable for taking merch into other countries. You will sell merch at shows and you should declare your profits and pay the tax to the local authorities when you do. Do not list merch on any carnet you use.

Further reading

Wikipedia – the article here is good
The Tour Bloke – Rog Patterson has been helping bands with carnets for over 20 years now. He has upgraded his website and this link will take you to his old site, which contains useful information
Boomerang Carnets – these people have published lots of useful information for US residents needing a carnet.

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