Traveling with Medication: How to Avoid Possible Jail Time

Traveling with Medication: How to Avoid Possible Jail Time

You pack for a long anticipated vacation. Your toiletry bag contains your toothbrush, comb, shaving gear, makeup, Vicks for your chest congestion, Sudafed in case you get a cold, and all your prescriptions. Stop right there – some of those medications can earn you jail time in certain countries. Even with pristine documentation and labeling, you need to be very wary of traveling to certain destinations with prescription and over-the-counter medications.  

A Serious Threat

Traveling with a small amount of medication for personal use may be ok, but it might not be, depending upon where you are going. For example, some countries, like Russia and the United Arab Emirates, do not recognize mental health issues as a health condition. Therefore, any drug that treats depression, anxiety or ADHD would be considered to be illegal, resulting in confiscation, or jail. It is serious enough that if you or your child need to take these medications, make new travel plans.

According to World Aware, a travel risk management company, in addition to confiscation of your medications – that can endanger your health – noncompliance with a foreign government’s drug laws can result in “deportation, jail time, and even the death penalty”. It is a very real threat.  

Here is a list of drugs that can place you in serious jeopardy, depending upon the country to which you travel:

  • Japan bans medication containing pseudoephedrine (ex. Sudafed, Vicks, etc.)
  • Greece, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other countries consider diazepam, tramadol, codeine and a number of other commonly-prescribed medicines to be  “controlled drugs” –
    • If you’re traveling to one of those countries, or others with a controlled substance, be sure to check the documentation for what you need to prove your prescription (this varies by country)
  • Singapore requires a license for sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills and strong painkillers
  • Costa Rica requires that you take only enough medication to match the length of your stay, with a doctor’s note confirming you are in possession of the correct amount
  • In Indonesia, prescription medicines like codeine, sleeping pills and treatments for ADHD are illegal
  • In Qatar (UAE), over-the-counter medicines such as cold and cough remedies are controlled substances and must be accompanied by a prescription
  • In China, any personal medication should be accompanied by a doctor’s note

Know the Regulations Before You Go

Clearly, the answer is to check the regulations of the country you are visiting before you leave the United States. However, not everyone does that. A survey conducted in the United Kingdom by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office found that one in three people checked the rules for prescription medications in the country of their destination before traveling, however only one in five did so for over-the-counter medications.

You can’t be too careful. Here’s what the US government advises Americans do with medications when traveling internationally:

US Customs and Border Protection:

  • Prescription medications should be in their original containers with the doctor’s prescription printed on the container
  • It is advised that you travel with no more than personal use quantities, a rule of thumb is no more than a 90-day supply
  • If your medications or devices are not in their original containers, you must have a copy of your prescription with you or a letter from your doctor
  • A valid prescription or doctor’s note is required on all medication entering the US

US Department of State: Some prescription drugs, including narcotics and some US over-the-counter medications, are illegal in other countries. Check with the embassy of your destination(s) about regulations and documentation before you travel.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers offers a checklist for traveling with medications:

  • Check the INCB Guidelines if traveling with medications that are narcotics or psychotropics
  • Be aware of medications with potential for abuse (ex. anabolic steroids)
  • Be aware that many countries permit taking only a 30-day supply of certain medicines and require carrying a prescription or an import license certificate
  • Keep the tablets together with the original packaging and information leaflet. Carry a copy of your prescription, particularly for prescribed medicines that act on the Central Nervous System

Travel Smart, Travel Safe

The New York Times published a thorough checklist for traveling with medications. With all due respect and acknowledgment, we are going to pass on their suggestions here.

  • Carry all of your medication — even vitamins and supplements — in their original, clearly marked containers or packaging in a clear plastic bag in carry-on luggage.
  • Make sure the name on the prescription, the medicine container and your passport (or one for the recipient of the medication) all match. If you lost the product information insert, ask the pharmacist to print a new one for you.
  • Check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s website for up-to-date rules and regulations on packing and carrying your medication when you depart.
  • The standard rules for liquid carry-ons don’t apply to medications in liquid or gel form, but you need to inform the TSA when you pass through security so they don’t confiscate it.
  • Keep copies of your original prescriptions, if you can.
    • Better yet, obtain a letter on official letterhead from your physician that lists the medicines you need and why they were prescribed.
  • Ideally, you would get this translated to the language of your destination country, so it’s easy to read.
  • For some medication and specialized equipment used to administer them, some countries require documents to be submitted to government officials well in advance of your arrival.
  • The documentation you carry should also indicate the generic and chemical names of the active ingredients, which determines permissibility, not brand names.
    • For example, the active ingredient in Benadryl, diphenhydramine, is banned in Zambia in over-the-counter products. In Japan, it is allowed only if the amount in a tablet or injection is limited. However, a typical 25 mg tablet of Tylenol PM in the US exceeds the 10mg maximum amount in a tablet you can bring into Japan. Some countries restrict the overall total amount of an active ingredient an individual traveler can legally import, which may impact longer stays.
  • In countries where a medication is allowed, but its amount is capped, reducing your dosage or switching to another available medication is the best way to stay compliant. Allow enough time beforehand to ensure the smaller dose or new medicine works effectively, and consider making the switch before your trip to give yourself time to adjust.

It’s a good idea to check with your travel medical insurance company or pharmacist to make sure you’re traveling legally with your medications.

If you’re going to enjoy your vacation, and be allowed to roam freely around the country of your destination, it’s a good idea to dot all the “i’s” and cross all the “t’s” concerning medication before you leave. Don’t leave anything to chance. Foreign jails aren’t on any travel itinerary and they certainly shouldn’t be on yours.

Deborah Chiaravalloti is an award-winning writer and former hospital executive. Her insider experience helps healthcare clients launch medical procedures, products including artificial intelligence software and knowledge sharing platforms. Deborah writes websites, blogs, opinion pieces, and marketing strategy for elder care, health care consumerism, revenue cycle management (RCM), and the business of healthcare. Her printed pieces have been published and her radio shows syndicated nationally.

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