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. However, many foreign countries aren’t so lenient about what you put in your body. For travelers, this can be a serious risk — legally and healthwise. Here’s what you need to know about “everyday” (by American standards) medications abroad, and why you should 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 what some countries consider contraband. Travelers should always consult their destination country to determine what is and is not allowed.
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
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 countries 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 include common cold relief products like Vicks and Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine. For Japan, the U.S. Embassy is clear:
“Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items. Japanese customs officials do not make on-the-spot ‘humanitarian’ exceptions for medicines that are prohibited in Japan.”
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. 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 and supplements, and especially prescription drugs — in their original containers. To take it a step farther, 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, be sure to only pack enough for personal use. Last year, a British woman 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 most cases, you’ll skate with 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.
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