Travelling with medicine

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Need to take prescribed medicine abroad? Read our guide to get information on what to do if you need to travel with tablets, plus what you need to get from your doctor

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Travelling requires lots of planning, from booking flights and accommodation to organising the right type of travel insurance.

If you have a health condition that requires you to take regular medication, there’s another thing to think about: some countries have restrictions on bringing particular drugs across their borders, and it’s important to know whether local regulations may affect your travel plans.

As well as understanding the local legality of your medicine, knowing the right way to pack and store it during transit will help to avoid emergencies overseas. We’ve compiled this guide to help you navigate the potentially perplexing issue of travelling with medicine. 

How to check whether your medicine is legal to travel with

While medicines prescribed by qualified British doctors are legal to possess and take in the UK, other destinations around the world often have different rules about their legality.

If you take a medicine that contains a ‘controlled drug’ – one that is included on the home office’s controlled drug list – you need to be able to prove that the drug has been prescribed to you in order to travel with it.

It’s important to note that the controlled drug list isn’t an exhaustive list of medicines, which can vary in name depending on their manufacturer. Rather, the list contains the scientific names of drugs that medicines may contain. You can check whether your medicine contains a controlled drug by looking at the ingredients on the box and cross checking these with the controlled drug list.

Drugs listed as schedule 1 on the controlled drugs list are usually illegal to travel with. If your medication contains drugs that fall into this category, consult the Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit before making travel arrangements.

What to do before travelling with controlled drugs

If you’re travelling for less than three months with drugs listed as schedule 2, 3 or 4 on the controlled drug list, your proof of prescription should be a letter from the person who prescribed your medicine.

Make sure that this letter includes your full name; the countries you’re visiting and the dates you’ll be visiting them; a list of your medication including the quantity, dosage and strength; and the signature of the health professional who prescribed your drugs.

Those travelling for three or more months with medicine containing controlled drugs will need to apply for a license. This can be done by filling in a personal import/export licence application form, which is free to download via the government’s website. If you need a license, you should apply for it as early as possible – they can take at least 10 days to be granted, or longer if you’re applying from outside the UK.

Note that if you’re travelling for less than three months but are bringing a supply of controlled drugs that would last you three months or more, you will also need a license.

Foreign countries with strict regulations

While every country has its own laws relating to controlled drugs and the types of medication that can be legally taken, certain nations have been known to be particularly strict in applying their regulations.

India, Turkey, Pakistan, Japan and the United Arab Emirates (which includes popular travel destinations such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi) have all been known to impose extensive rules on travelling with medication, although these are by no means the only countries with restrictions in place.

The best way to ensure that you are not caught carrying restricted substances when crossing borders is to contact the embassy of the country you’re travelling to. Contact details can be found via the UK government’s online list of foreign embassies.

Best practices for travelling with medicine

As well as bringing proof of your prescription when travelling with medication, taking heed of the following advice can help to prevent medicine-related problems from ruining a holiday or business trip.

It’s always a good idea to bring the original packaging and information leaflet your medicine came with. These should include the generic name of the medication you’re taking (as opposed to the brand name), and details of the drugs that they contain.

Not only will this information be useful if you’re stopped at customs, it could also help doctors to provide the right treatment if you run into any medical issues while abroad. Consider having this information translated into the local language, particularly if the country you’re visiting is known to have a low percentage of English-speaking citizens.

When travelling with medication, it’s advisable to include it as part of your hand luggage, which generally has a lower risk of being lost in transit. The regulations held by certain airlines might take issue with this, so check before travelling and keep a copy of your prescription to hand in case you’re questioned.

Some medicines require special storage conditions in order to continue working effectively. Your pharmacist will be able to provide specific advice on how your medication should be stored – for example, it might need to be refrigerated or kept at room temperature, which can be tricky in countries with warm climates. Insulated pouches, cool bags and thermos flasks may help, although you should always consult a professional to make sure you’re using the right method of storage for your medicine.

Finally, if you take regular medication and need a vaccination to protect yourself from disease in the country you’re travelling to, talk to your doctor before getting immunised. Some vaccines could interfere with the medicine you take, and your doctor will be able to advise you if there are any alternatives.

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