Drugs and Medication Needed for Traveling Abroad

The types of health care products and over-the-counter medications someone should bring on their trip abroad will depend on their needs and where they’re traveling to. There are some items — like a first aid kit, pain-relieving medications, and sunscreen — that are a good idea for everyone to bring abroad.  (Learn More — What Kind of Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drugs and Health Products Should Be Taken Abroad?)

Travelers headed to certain high-risk countries where problems like malaria or diarrhea are prevalent should talk to their doctor about preventative steps they can take to avoid becoming ill on their trip. (Learn More: Special Medication Considerations While Traveling Abroad)

Those with necessary prescription medications should bring enough for their entire trip, as well as some extra, in case of a delay or emergency. They should also talk to their health care providers about any changes in routine due to time zone or lifestyle changes while traveling. (Learn More — Prescription Medications: How Much to Bring)

Some countries limit or even restrict some medications, especially pain medications, ADHD drugs, and some anxiety-related prescriptions. Travelers should check with the embassies of their destination countries to make sure their prescriptions will be allowed through. (Learn More — Are There Restrictions on Medications That Can Be Taken Abroad?)

Providing proper documentation and paperwork can help to save time and avoid hassles while getting through customs in a foreign country. A traveler should bring a prescription for every medication they bring, along with a letter from their doctor. They should also be able to provide the generic name, or chemical active ingredient list, for their medications. (Learn More — Are Prescriptions or Paperwork Required to Bring Medications Abroad?)

Each prescription should be in its original packaging along with its product information insert. Even over-the-counter medications should be in their original packaging or clearly marked and labeled. To avoid lost or overheated medications, all medicines should be brought in a carryon bag rather than stored in checked luggage. (Learn More — How Should Prescription Medications Be Stored When Traveling Abroad?)

To avoid any medication emergencies while abroad, travelers should consider travelers insurance and carry the contact information for the nearest U.S. embassy on them. Should their medication get lost or stolen, the embassy might be able to help. (Learn More — After Arrival: Dealing With Medication Problems Abroad)

Because many medications are available in other countries for lower prices, some travelers may be tempted to bring foreign medications back to the U.S. Buying medication abroad for the sole purpose of importing it into the U.S. is illegal. However, in most cases, people are allowed to enter the U.S. with a private-use quantity of a permitted drug (in original packaging) when they have a valid prescription and any required paperwork. (Learn More — Bringing Prescription Drugs From Other Countries Into the U.S: Is It Legal?)

What Kind of Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drugs and Health Products Should Be Taken Abroad?

The types of medications and health care items that should be brought abroad will vary greatly depending on an individual’s health needs, as well as where they are traveling to and what they are planning on doing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a “Pack Smart” list that highlights some of the most helpful health-related items to pack.

In addition to any necessary prescription drugs, travelers may consider bringing the following OTC medications:

  • Allergy drugs
  • Antidiarrheal drugs 
  • Antihistamines
  • Cough medicines
  • Pain medication, like ibuprofen or aspirin
  • Laxatives
  • Sedatives or sleep aids
  • Antacid drugs
  • Antifungal or antibacterial creams
  • 1% hydrocortisone cream

The following health-related items may also come in handy when traveling abroad:

  • Insect repellant
  • Thermometer
  • Aloe Vera gel
  • Sunscreen
  • First-aid kit, with bandages and cleaning wipes
  • Blister treatments
  • Eye drops
  • Condoms
  • Water purification tablets
  • Tweezers
  • Earplugs

Special Medication Considerations While Traveling Abroad

Some locations around the world have higher incidences of certain diseases, insect bites, and illnesses. Travelers should research the areas to which they will be traveling in order to get a better idea of what they are at risk of coming into contact with.
Travelers who are visiting high-risk areas should talk to their doctors about necessary
preventative and cautionary medications and immunizations. For example, individuals traveling to parts of the world where malaria is present may seek preventative medication to ensure they don’t contract the disease. Those traveling to mountainous regions may wish to bring prescribed altitude sickness medications.

Prescription Medications: How Much to Bring

Individuals with necessary prescription medications should bring enough to last the entirety of their trip, as well as some extra in case of a travel delay or extended visit. If you are having trouble getting additional medication covered by insurance, talk to the prescribing doctor and explain the situation.

People who follow a strict daily routine with their prescription medication and take it at the same time every day should consider any time zone changes, and how that may affect their drug’s side effects and interactions. Talking to a doctor about changes to the prescription drug routine may help to avoid any surprises or discomfort while traveling.

It is generally advised to bring no more than personal use quantities of a medication. According to U.S. Customs and Borders Protection, a 90-day supply is usually considered a general guideline when assessing personal supply quantities. If more medication is required, contact the governing authorities in the destination location. Talking to a doctor or medical professional about alternatives may also help.

Are There Restrictions on Medications That Can Be Taken Abroad?

In some countries, certain prescription medications are not available and may even be illegal. If a prescription drug is considered illegal, it will be confiscated at customs. It may create legal or logistical difficulties for the traveler carrying them; they may be questioned or denied entry.

For this reason, travelers should verify that their prescription drugs are permitted entry to their destination prior to departure. Again, contact the embassy or appropriate foreign authority for verification.

For example, Adderall and amphetamine-related medications are illegal in Japan and would be seized if a traveler tried to bring them into the country. Some OTC medications, including Sudafed and Nyquil, are also illegal in Japan.

Problematic medications include pain medications, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications, and anxiety-related medications. Cannabis products, as well as CBD products, may also present a problem at customs.

Some medical equipment, such as syringes or Epi-pens (allergy treatments) may be restricted or require preauthorization. Contacting the foreign country’s embassy as early as possible will help to avoid delays or problems.

Are Prescriptions or Paperwork Required to Bring Medications Abroad?

Going above and beyond to provide custom agents with all needed paperwork for medications can help avoid any problems or delays while traveling with prescription drugs.

To ensure prescription drugs are allowed through, travelers should consider bringing:

  • Written prescriptions for each and every medication brought.
  • A copy of the traveler’s medical record, signed by a doctor.
  • Phone numbers for prescribing doctors and pharmacists.
  • A doctor’s letter stating the purpose for each prescribed drug. Travelers should consider getting this letter translated to the language of the country they are visiting, to avoid confusion and speed up the process.
  • The generic or chemical name for active ingredients in addition to the brand name of the drug. Foreign inspectors may not be familiar with U.S. brand names, but they will be able to research a medication based on its generic name or chemical makeup.
  • Health insurance card and documents.

How Should Prescription Medications Be Stored When Traveling Abroad?

To avoid problems at customs, prescription medications should be packaged in their original containers. The name on the bottle should exactly match the name on the accompanying prescription. If a traveler usually uses a pill dispenser box, they can bring the empty box with them and set it up once they arrive at their destination (after going through customs).

Here are other tips on storage and packaging while traveling abroad:

  • Bring medications in a carry-on bag rather than in checked luggage. Storing medications in checked luggage means carrying the risk of losing or being unable to access needed medications if checked luggage is lost or delayed. 

Also, some medication is temperature-sensitive. The place in which a carry-on is situated is usually temperature controlled, while cargo holds are not. Be sure to tell TSA or customs agents about any liquid medications you are carrying.

  • Over-the-counter medications should be clearly marked and labeled, ideally in their original packaging.
  • Medication packaging should include the product information insert. If a traveler has lost an insert, they should ask their pharmacist to print out a new one.
  • Accessories, like insulated lunch bags or frozen gel packs, are permitted for medications that require refrigeration.

After Arrival: Dealing With Medication Problems Abroad

Many travelers are concerned with bringing their medications abroad, but they don’t plan for any problems that can occur once they’ve reached their destinations and made it through customs. Here are some tips for preventing medication emergencies abroad: 

  • If medication is lost, stolen, or confiscated at customs, contact the nearest U.S. embassy. Each embassy has a list of doctors and health providers that may be able to help.
  • Travelers should leave a copy of their prescriptions with a dependable friend or family member at home.
  • Travelers should ask their doctor for a new prescription for their medications, which will prove valuable if their drugs are lost or stolen. Doctors should write a new, single prescription for each medication, as some foreign pharmacies will not fulfill prescriptions that use a multi-prescription form.
  • Travelers should carry the phone number of the nearest U.S. embassy on them at all times. Consular duty staff are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Before leaving, travelers should consider travelers insurance that covers emergency out-of-pocket medical expenses. Depending on the country traveled to, emergency medical expenses can be costly.

Many countries offer prescription medication that is far cheaper than it is in the U.S. For this reason, some travelers may consider obtaining cheaper drugs abroad and then bringing them back to the U.S.

Current laws in the U.S. make this practice illegal. The foreign purchase of drugs for “personal importation” or “reimportation” is not allowed. Even if the drug being purchased is the same exact drug that is approved and licensed in the U.S., a citizen cannot go to a foreign country to purchase it solely for the purpose of bringing it back.

In part, this is because foreign drugs have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. This means they have not gone through the required testing or monitoring process, and they may not meet the standards for safety.

What about U.S. citizens who have traveled abroad and obtained valid prescriptions from foreign doctors as needed on their trip? It’s a gray area that may depend on the origin country and the types of medications being imported. A U.S. traveler wanting to bring foreign medications back with them may inquire with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Control.

All travelers entering the U.S. from abroad will face the U.S. Customs and Border Control, which has strict rules regarding bringing foreign medications into the country. Generally, permitted medications are allowed with a valid prescription, as long as the quantity doesn’t exceed what would be needed for personal use, which is a 90-day supply.

Other rules include:

  • All drugs and medications must be declared when going through customs. Any drugs or medications that weren’t declared, but discovered by an agent, could result in serious penalties and fines.
  • Medications must be in their original packaging and accompanied by a valid prescription from a doctor. Additional documentation, like a letter from the prescribing doctor or an explanation of the drug’s active ingredients, may also be required.
  • If a drug purchase is considered suspicious, it may be set aside for further investigation and destroyed if it’s determined to be a non-permitted prescription medication. 

References

Pack Smart. (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Traveling with Medication. (July 2015). Cheapflights.

How to Travel with Medications. (August 2019). Verywell Health. 

Traveling with Medications. Northwestern University. 

Traveling with Medication. (March 2019). U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. 

How to Travel on Airlines With Prescription Drugs and Vitamins. (April 2018). USA Today.

How to Buy Prescription Drugs from a Foreign Pharmacy. (August 2019). Verywell Health. 

Personal Importation. (August 2018). U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).