I sometimes get questions about whether or not it will be a problem for my patients to take their medications with them while traveling abroad on vacation or for work. This is especially true for patients who are on medications that are controlled substances.
It is important to know that with regard to which medications can or cannot be legally brought in by travelers, the laws vary from country to country.
In some countries and under certain circumstances, EVEN IF the patient has a valid prescription in the United States, a letter from the prescribing clinician, and a completely legitimate reason for being on that medication our patients can:
– Have their medications confiscated
– Be fined, or
– In rare cases, even be arrested and prosecuted for possession of certain medications.
On this page, I will discuss some general tips about carrying medications while traveling to other countries that subscribers to this website can copy and paste for sharing with their patients. These are based, in part, on recommendations from the US Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A few weeks before your trip
1. Much before you are scheduled to leave on your trip, check the up-to-date regulations for the country you are visiting or transiting through to make sure that the prescription medications you are taking can be legally taken into that country. You could do this going to THIS LINK on the US Department of State’s website.
Finding out about regulations in the country you are planning to visit should be done several weeks in advance since you may need time to get a letter from the clinician who prescribed the medication and, in some cases, to apply for special permission from the country you are traveling to.
2. For any medication that may be a problem in the country you are traveling to, especially controlled substances, take with you a letter from the clinician who prescribed the medication. The letter should include:
– Your full name exactly as listed in your passport
– What medical condition the medication is intended to treat, and
– Both the brand/ trade and generic names of the medication. Note: it is important for the generic name to be included since the brand/ trade names of medications vary from country to country.
If the letter from the prescribing clinician is not in English or if you are traveling to a country where you encounter officials who are not proficient in English, you may need to consider having the letter translated into the local language of the country you are visiting.
If obtaining a letter from the prescribing clinician is not possible, carry with you a copy of the original prescription for that medication.
[Optional to read:
If you think that being asked to write a letter for your patient is burdensome and unnecessary, please note two things:
1. That I ONLY recommended it “For any medication that may be a problem in the country you are traveling to…”
2. That a letter from the patient’s physician is recommended by:
– The US Department of State: “Carry a letter from the attending physician that describes the medical condition and any prescription medications, including the generic name of prescribed drugs.”
– The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “…have your doctor write a letter describing your condition and the treatment plan.”
– An article in the New York Times that consulted an expert (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/travel/how-to-make-sure-you-travel-with-medication-legally.html) “Better yet, obtain a letter on official letterhead from your physician that lists the medicines you need and why they were prescribed.”]
When to be more concerned
Some countries have particularly strict regulations related to bringing medications into the country and certain medications are more likely to be problematic. Here are some examples (NOT complete lists):
Countries (alphabetically): Japan, Nigeria, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates
Medications: Psychostimulants, benzodiazepines, hypnotics (e.g., zolpidem), opioids, steroids, injectable medications.
Packing for the trip
1. Take the medications in the original containers labeled by the pharmacy and/ or the original packaging. Make sure the name on the label on the medication bottle exactly matches that on your passport.
2. Take enough medication with you not only for the duration of the trip but also for a few extra days in case you get delayed in coming back home.
3. Don’t plan on getting your medication in a foreign country. In most countries, a prescription from the USA will not be accepted. Also, in some countries, that specific medication may not be available or the quality may be questionable.
4. It is likely that there is a quantity limit on how much of the medication you can take with you when visiting a foreign country. This is likely to be somewhere between a 30-day and 90-day supply. So, if you have more pills in the bottle than the allowed amount, don’t forget to leave some of the pills home.
5. Keep your medications in your carry-on luggage and not in your checked luggage. Checked luggage does get lost or delayed—more frequently than you might think.
6. Keep the medications in your own luggage rather than in someone else’s.
7. Do NOT try to mail the medication to yourself at your destination or have it mailed to you. If it is not legal to bring it with you, it is not legal to mail it to yourself either. Also, the temperature fluctuations in the mail may affect the stability of the medication.
Simple and Practical Medical Education, LLC, is thankful to John C. Raiss, MD (https://johnraissmd.com), one of our subscribers, whose blog post on this topic inspired me to write about it.
International Narcotics Control Board. Traveling Internationally with Medicines Containing Controlled Substances
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