The teenager was sentenced after a Bengal tiger cub was found in his car at the US-Mexico border.
His lawyer argued that his client had had “a lapse of judgement” and that he wanted to keep the tiger as a pet.
But prosecutors said he was running an animal smuggling business.
They said mobile phone messages sent by the teenager, named as 18-year-old Luis Valencia, showed he was boasting about getting large sums of money for exotic animals such as jaguars and lions.
The tiger cub, named Moka, was placed in San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park.