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Touring with a Carnet ATA

by Sebastian Eppner
– August 2022 –

Our first problem was that we understood much too late that Brexit made everything quite complicated for us as a band. Since the booking agency wanted to take care of the work permit, we thought all our problems were solved. In fact, this part also worked out without any major issues (which is why I have little to contribute to the application for entry and work permits in this report). However, we only realised much too late that there was a real obstacle due to the new customs border: It is no longer easy to enter England with a car (or bus) full of equipment. The solution to this problem - as we learned - is called "ATA Carnet". As a "beginner", applying for and getting this document took us about 2-3 full working days.

The heart of the Carnet is a list of all equipment which temporarily leaves the EU. 

For inspiration, we got a list from an artist friend of ours who once needed it for a US tour. We had the impression that the more detailed and consistent the list, the fewer questions, and potential problems at the borders. Making the list is the most complicated and time-consuming part of the new Brexit touring ‘sport.’ Each piece of equipment taken must be noted on the list with its serial number (if there is no serial number, it is good to make up your own and stick it on the piece of equipment), its current value (i.e., the value at that time, eBay Classifieds helps with the estimate), approximate weight and country of origin. Where serial numbers are missing, printed photos are useful, which can be attached to the Carnet and certified. When preparing the Carnet, we wondered what should be included (e.g., also power cables and the cables for our instruments?). I don't have a definitive answer. For example, we put all the cables in a photo and then in a bag and put them on the list as one item with an estimated value and weight.

When you have the list for the whole band, you must print it on the official document (the actual ATA CARNET paper document, a few green sheets). You can get this document for a few euros at your local Chamber of Industry and Commerce (Industrie- und Handelskammer, IHK) – in Berlin, at the IHK Berlin at Fasanenstraße. If you have enough time, you can have it sent to you. But we were in a VERY big hurry and went there ourselves (you can get it during their office hours). 

Printing the document with the contents of the list is an absolute nightmare and it takes time and nerves.

The IHK's online filling-in help is extremely error-prone and regularly shatters the layout of the document (this is a well-known, but irritatingly unsolved problem). Every misprint means that you must buy another official document, which means not only money but also time wasted! Therefore, experienced border crossers print the document with their own template. As soon as we had the official document, we "copied" it in Excel and then tried it out with many test printouts until the list seemed to fit well on it. Only then did we put the sacred green sheets in the printer and printed on them. I was in a hurry at the time and aged about three years. So, allow plenty of time.

The printed document must be returned to the IHK (go to the counter in person or send it in by mail). It will now be examined and stamped. In our case, it cost 120 euros for a total value of about 7,000 euros. From a total value of 15,000 euros (at least in 2021 according to my recollection, you should confirm this again by phone), the Carnet becomes much more expensive and complicated (you then need a guarantee). If you are in a hurry, you can get the stamps on the same day, which only costs a small surcharge (I think it would be around 20 euros). If you have enough time in advance, you can also do it by post.

When you get the stamped Carnet, you still have to go to a customs office (in Berlin, e.g. in Marzahn) with the Carnet and the complete equipment in the car.

You don't need an appointment for this, so I was there quite early to avoid queuing. You get another stamp from the Berlin customs office to certify that the list is in order and corresponds to the equipment you have with you (in our case, they didn't even look at the equipment).

Now you must show the Carnet and have it stamped a total of 4 times during the tour at the borders (when leaving the EU, when entering the UK, when leaving the UK and when entering the EU). Getting ALL FOUR stamps is important, as the Carnet must be returned to the Chamber of Industry and Commerce at the end of its validity. They check that all the stamps are there.

On our first trip, I was so confused because it is sometimes difficult to find the stamp location. You can often ask the customs officials, but sometimes,
you can’t find one.

This is especially a problem when leaving the country, because normally (if you're not a truck driver) customs don't play a role when you leave the country, and there are special places that we weren't familiar with. Maybe these experiences (port of Calais and port of Dover) will help:

Port of Calais, EU exit: Behind the immigration UK control and before driving onto the ferry, there is a small roundabout. Next to it, there is a kind of corrugated iron hut. To find it, look for the easily overlooked sign "ATA" or "ATA CARNET" at the roundabout. In this hut, we encountered two Louis de Funès-lookalike gendarmes, who were very interested in German Krautrock, liked to stamp everything, and joked about German customs officials. Entering the EU: You can follow the yellow lines on the asphalt to customs, where there is a kind of mobile home with offices where strict customs officials look at the Carnet again. It takes around 30 minutes.

Port of Dover, UK entry: When you get off the ferry, look for a customs officer and wave your ATA Carnet. They will know where to send you (not on the motorway, but in the direction of Dover town centre, then up to the BP petrol station and then left over the bridge to "MOTIS", which is the actual customs office). Don't be surprised if you can't reach the button that opens the barrier to the car park (it's built so high that only truckers can reach it from their windows). Just get out and climb up the pillar. We talked to customs; These acrobatics are officially expected from smaller bands. After parking, go to the Customs office with all your papers, they will help you there. It takes a good 30 to 60 minutes depending on how busy it is. Leaving the UK was the same as entering, same place, same procedure.

Generally, only random checks are made, and even that is apparently quite rare. I suspect that a detailed and consistent Carnet makes the process easier. I know from acquaintances that when spot checks are done, the more valuable items on the list tend to be checked more.

Note on using the Carnet several times: The document is a kind of master document that is valid for a full year. You can go to the Chamber of Industry and Commerce within that year and just get some new annex sheets (very cheap, only a few euros) and start on a new tour. However, you cannot add any new items to the list during the year! But you can reduce it for a trip. It is therefore recommended to write a bit more on the list than you will take with you on the first trip, and then tick off what you will NOT take with you when you set off. Example: If you sometimes travel with and sometimes without a drummer, you should put the items belonging to the drum set on the list one after the other (e.g., items 40 to 47). Then, when you set off without a drum set, you can simply enter that items 40 to 47 are not part of this journey. The principle has its limit in that the price of the Carnet depends on the total value of the list.

The same applies to the countries to which you want to travel. It does not hurt to write more countries on the Carnet when issuing it, because the Carnet can then also be used in these other countries in that year (as far as I remember, at no extra charge).

Another hint: The document is always written in a name, in our case the name of the band leader. This person must then always be present when stamping. If you want to simplify this, e.g., because there is a tour manager, you can enter representatives when you apply, who can also present themselves to customs on their own.

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