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Tips for Traveling with Medication

Travelers walk through a crowded Paddington Station in London

Photo via Tomek Baginski/Unsplash

Many common U.S. medications and supplements are illegal abroad or require government authorization before your arrival.

Drug Facts: Traveling with Medication

Adderall. Benadryl. Birth control. Protein powder. These are just a few of the common U.S. medications and supplements that are illegal in some countries or require government authorization prior to your arrival.

Travelers are often caught off guard by the wide variance of laws regulating the importation of and access to medications across borders, whether mailed or hand carried. Depending on your destination, you could be subject to increased scrutiny from customs officials (not a big deal, you think) or confiscation and imprisonment (that escalated quickly). In Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia, for example, a drug offense conviction can result in the death penalty.

Know Before You Go

Be aware of your destination’s banned and restricted medications. The US embassy website of your destination country is a good place to start—a quick query in the search bar should do the trick. You can also check your airline's website to see if things like flying with Adderall, for example, are prohibited.

If any of your medications are on the embassy's or airline's list of banned or restricted substances, you'll need to talk with your health care provider about suitable alternatives. Make sure the alternative medications are legally permitted and readily available in your destination.

Common Restrictions

  • Narcotics and psychotropic medications (e.g. Adderall and Ambien)
  • Over-the-counter medications and nutritional supplements (e.g. protein powder)
  • Hormone medications (e.g. birth control pills, morning after pills, and hormone therapy medication for gender transition)
  • Certain ingredients or quantities of ingredients (e.g. pseudoephedrine found in Sudafed, and diphenhydramine HCI found in Benadryl and Tylenol PM)

Ignorance isn’t an Excuse

Take this example of an American Toyota executive arrested in Tokyo after Japanese customs officials found a controlled pain medication in a package she mailed to herself. Japanese authorities can detain suspects without charge for up to 23 days, and the executive spent almost three weeks in jail before being released without charge. At a press conference, Toyota explained that their executive did not intentionally violate local laws; however, ignorance, in this case, had serious repercussions.

Chronic Conditions

For travelers with chronic physical or mental health conditions, anticipate how your new environment can affect your health. For example, if you have asthma and are traveling to areas with high levels of air pollution, you’ll want to discuss mitigation strategies with your health care provider. If you require injections, you’ll need to review airline and country-specific regulations for traveling with needles or syringes. Many airlines, like Emirates, have a list of prohibited goods on their website, as well as guidelines for traveling with a chronic health condition.

Mental Health

Practice self-care; difficulty in adjustment can be mitigated by trying to maintain your daily routine while abroad. If there are aspects of your routine that keep you happy at home—for example, working out—try to find facilities in your destination by which you can continue them.

Preexisting mental health conditions can be intensified by living in a different culture, and local resources may be less than or different from those to which you’re accustomed to at home. Discuss these concerns with your health care provider and know the counseling resources available to you abroad—including International SOS—should you need help.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Cultural norms and laws that impact individuals’ access to sexual and reproductive health vary by country (and by state in the US). Consider bringing personal care and health-related items that may be unavailable or difficult to obtain in your destination, including menstruation products and contraceptives; as with your prescription and over-the-counter medications, make sure any contraceptives you bring with you are legal in your destination country.

Tips for Traveling with Medication

Before You Leave

  • Research your destination and transit locations. The International SOS destination guides, available in the Assistance App and member portal, include medical information such as vaccines, documentation, medication, clinics, and hospitals. Log in with your HarvardKey.
  • If you're traveling to a region with a high risk of malaria, review the CDC's malaria advice and assess whether you'd like to carry preventative medication with you. Speak to your doctor about obtaining malaria medication, and treat it during travel just like you would any other prescription.
  • Obtain necessary permits or government authorization.
  • Ask your doctor for a letter on their letterhead explaining your medical treatment and necessity, translated into the host country’s language, if necessary.
  • If you have to take your medication at a specific time, talk with your doctor about adjusting your schedule accordingly based on your travel time and time zone changes.
  • Pack enough medication to last the length of your trip—plus extra in case of delays, but no more than personal-use quantities.

During Travel

  • Keep all medications in your carry-on luggage and in their original, labeled containers; do not combine multiple medications into one container.
  • The name on the prescription should match the name on travel documents and identification.
  • Be prepared for additional screening.
  • Carry a written prescription and a letter from your doctor explaining the medication and medical condition.
  • Do not have banned or controlled substances mailed to you.
  • In case of an emergency, contact International SOS if you are sick, injured, or need medical advice.

Returning to the U.S.

  • If you're prescribed medication abroad, review U.S. Customs & Border Patrol's list of restricted and prohibited items to certify that medication obtained abroad may be brought back into the country.
  • Declare all medication and associated items at customs.
  • Carry medication obtained abroad in its original container.