How to travel abroad safely with prescription medications

April 3, 2018 in Travel Health  •  By Susan Walker
prescription medications

If you regularly take prescription medications for back pain, ADHD, insomnia, anxiety, and a range of other conditions, you probably don’t think twice about packing them into your luggage when you travel. In the U.S., the most common issue people face when traveling with prescription medications is lost or forgotten medications. And while people traveling abroad do encounter that problem too, there are other risks they may face while traveling with their medications.

Even if you have a prescription, your medication is legal in the U.S., and you are traveling with only enough medication for personal use, you may not be able to bring your medications into some foreign countries. For example:

  • In Japan, it is illegal to bring the ADHD medications Adderall and Ritalin into the country. You’re also not permitted to bring the over-the-counter decongestant Sudafed, which contains, pseudoephedrine, into the country.
  • In the United Arab Emirates, only a three-month supply of any narcotic is permitted, the medication must be in its original packaging, and you must have a letter from your doctor or a paper copy of your current prescription.
  • In some countries, the anti-anxiety medications Xanax, Ativan, and Buspar are illegal.
  • Some countries restrict the importation of medical devices, such as syringes and CPAP machines.
  • Some Catholic countries restrict the importation of birth control pills and devices.

Before you travel, take these steps

Your primary care physician and even a travel medicine specialist may not be aware of all the current laws and restrictions on medications overseas, although they may be able to find out more about whether you can travel with your medications. A health advisor can also research the issue and help you plan how to safely travel with the medications you need or how to connect with a physician at your destination to get your prescriptions filled locally.

Well before your trip, take these steps:

  • Contact the embassy: It can be helpful to contact the embassies in the U.S. of the countries you plan to visit and ask for their guidance on bringing medications and medical equipment with you.
  • Keep everything in its original packaging: Prescription medications, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements, and medical equipment such as needles and syringes, should be in their original packaging. The name on your prescription containers must match the name on your passport, so if you’ve recently gotten married or divorced, for example, get the prescription filled under your new name before you travel abroad.
  • Carry the supporting paperwork: In your carry-on bag, have a copy of your original prescription, and, if possible, a letter from your doctor on the practice’s letterhead outlining what medications you take and what conditions they are for. It’s helpful to have the letter translated into the languages of the countries you’ll be visiting so that customs agents can read them. The documentation should include the generic and chemical names of all medications, since brand names vary from country to country.
  • Consider changing medications: If a medication you take is illegal in the country you’re traveling to, talk with your doctor about finding a substitute that is permitted in that country. If you’ll be staying for more than 90 days (the usual medication supply that most countries allow), it may be wise to find a qualified physician at your destination who can manage your medication and refill prescriptions. That can be especially important for students who are studying abroad and will need the medication for six months to a year.
  • Have a backup plan in case your medication is confiscated: Having your original prescription and a letter from your doctor explaining your condition and the medications you take to manage it can help a local doctor at your destination prescribe replacement medications if yours are confiscated by customs or lost in transit.