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Think twice before packing those ‘everyday’ medications on your next trip

Ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it. That's why it pays to do your research when traveling with medication abroad.

Over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs are such an accepted part of everyday life here in the U.S. that we hardly give them a second thought. Everything from Tylenol to vitamin-based hangover remedies to sleeping pills (from melatonin to Xanax) can be found in most Americans’ EDC. But some foreign countries aren’t so lenient about what you put in your body. For international travelers, this can pose a serious risk with harsh legal consequences. Here’s what you need to know about packing and carrying “everyday” (by American standards, anyway) medications abroad and why you might want to think twice about what you pack for your next trip.

(Note that this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s intended to provide a jumping-off point so you’re aware of what some countries consider contraband. Travelers should always consult their destination country to determine what is and is not allowed.)

A pile of assorted pills and capsules in foil blister packs.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tips for traveling with medication:

  • Know the law of your destination country
  • Get a doctor’s note for your prescriptions
  • Bring the medication’s original container labeled with your name and address
  • Only pack enough for your personal use

On the less-restrictive side, some countries like China and Costa Rica mandate travelers carry official doctor’s notes for any prescriptions. Japan and the United Arab Emirates, however, are among the most restrictive in the world. Here, most narcotics, heavy sedatives, and stimulants (even Ritalin and Adderall) are banned, while amphetamines, epi-Pens, and even some OTC medications are heavily restricted. This can even include common cold relief products like Vicks and Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine. For Japan, for example, the U.S. Embassy is clear:

“Many common medications and over-the-counter drugs in the United States are illegal in Japan. It does not matter if you have a valid U.S. prescription for a medicine/drug which is illegal in Japan: if you bring it with you, you risk arrest and detention by the Japanese authorities.”

Likewise, Singapore requires travelers to carry a license for many painkillers, some sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medication. In some cases, possessing narcotics is punishable by death (yes, really). From the U.S. Department of State:

“Having as little as three grams of morphine in Singapore is sufficient for a death sentence. Similarly, drug offense convictions result in the death penalty in Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, and Saudi Arabia can impose judicially-sanctioned caning, flogging, lashing, or whipping for drug offenses.”

Start by following the TSA’s carry-on rules for prescription drugs. No matter what, it’s best to travel with any pills — including vitamins, supplements, and especially prescription drugs — in their original containers. To take it a step further, carry a note from your doctor on official letterhead that outlines how much of each drug you’re prescribed and why you’re taking it.

No matter what you’re carrying, always be sure to only pack enough for personal use. In 2017, a British tourist carrying 300 pills of Tramadol was imprisoned for three years in Egypt. While she had a legitimate reason for possessing such a relatively large quantity, the substance is banned in the country. (See also: Locked Up Abroad.)

If you follow the advice above, you’re unlikely to run afoul of the law. However, it pays to know the law in the first place. In some cases, you might skate by with just a slap on the wrist. Confiscation is the next-worst scenario. Depending on the medication, this could be a minor inconvenience or life-threatening if you’re living with a long-term condition. But some countries take possession of prescription drugs very, very seriously. If you’re caught, you could be staring down jail time or worse. Bottom line: No matter where you travel, remember that ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

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Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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