Traveling with Prescription Medication? Here's What You Need to Know

Traveling with Prescription Medication? Here's What You Need to Know

Even non-controlled drugs may be regulated. Make sure to investigate the status of all your medications, prescription or otherwise. Don’t risk your vacation turning into an extended stay at a prison camp.

The first time I flew to Canada, I was petrified about getting through customs and security. My fear was not from venturing into a new country, but from the controlled prescription drug I had tucked away in my carry-on bag. I had just filled the Adderall prescription at my local pharmacy, and I’d asked the clerk if I needed to carry the whole bottle or if I could just bring my pill carrier with the number of pills I needed for the trip (I was only staying four days). 

“Oh no, honey,” she said, “this is a controlled substance, you probably have to declare it at the border.” DECLARE it? I was so scared going through security the next day that I’m sure the extra pat-down after the body scan was due to my nervous and probably suspicious behavior. 

Fast-forward a year later and my daughter, who inherited my ADHD, was set to go on a trip to Japan. She called me in a panic, talking about prohibited psychotropics, documents and signatures, and a 30-day restriction. She was going for six weeks and Ritalin was on a list of flagged drugs for the country. 

So, what do you do in these situations? Google produces a myriad of results that may or may not offer the correct information. In fact, some of the crowdsourced question-answering sites turned out to have completely inaccurate information. Had we followed the instructions on one site I Googled, my kid’s medication would have been confiscated at customs and my daughter arrested by Japanese police—like Julie Hamp was in 2015.

Below I’ve compiled some questions that my family and others have asked when preparing to travel with controlled prescription drugs. The answers I’ve provided are based on my experience and research, but no resource can address every possible situation and laws change over time, so no matter what you find here, ALWAYS double-check the information with the TSA website if traveling within the U.S., or the embassy of the country you are flying to outside the U.S. 

1. What types of prescriptions are controlled? 

Most medications that you should worry about are categorized as narcotics or psychotropics. Narcotics are drugs that may relieve pain, while also possibly making you sleepy or dulling the senses. The term often refers to opioid and opiate medications but could mean others such as benzodiazepines. Psychotropics “affect the mind, mood, or behavior.” 

Ask your pharmacist if your medication is controlled. You can also find this information in the paperwork that comes with your prescription or on the prescription bottle. 

(Note: even non-controlled medications may be subject to regulation. Make sure to investigate the status of all your medication, prescription or otherwise, by following the guidelines below.)

2. How do I find out if my medication requires special preparation or rules? 

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) tries to keep an updated list of substances and the countries that regulate them. Read their “General Information for Travelers Carrying Medicines Containing Controlled Substances.” At the end, click “Browse Regulations by Country.” You can also click on the sidebar links for “Narcotics” or “Psychotropics.” There, you will find links to the updated lists of medications and the countries that regulate them.

*Note: You will need to know the chemical name for the medication, not its brand or commercial name. You can find that in your prescription records. 

Traveling with Prescription Medication? Here's What You Need to Know 1
A list of countries that prohibit Ritalin (methylphenidate).

3. How do I prepare my medication for my trip? 

Find out what your destination country requires. For Japan, we learned that my daughter can only bring in a 30-day supply of her medication. Now, a Q&A website suggested shipping the additional week of pills to her in Japan. But we see how that worked out for Julie Hamp. In order to have enough medication for her entire trip, my daughter needed to complete special documents that were downloadable from the website of the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, Welfare page under “Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices”. Some of the INCB links do not have working URLs, so prepare to Google to find the right agency. You can also call the phone numbers listed in the country’s info.

Start this process early. We started two months before my daughter’s trip to Japan. The process included filling out paperwork (including a statement from her doctor – more on that below) that we had to send to Japan ahead of the trip, and then we had to wait for the approval documents granting permission to carry the Ritalin into the country. It took three weeks to get all of the information we needed. If there was a mistake on any of the documents, we had to start all over. 

*Note: Never modify documents issued by a government. Doing so invalidates the document and may be a crime in that country. 

4. Does the 3-1-1 rule apply? 

No. But it may make things easier if you do put your medication bottles together in a clear bag. The TSA may ask you to remove them from your bags. Depending on the rules of the country, you may need to alert the customs agents at the point of entry that you have controlled medications. Make sure that the meds and necessary documents are easily produced to expedite your time at customs. 

5. Do I need a prescription or a doctor’s note? 

Maybe. And look up the requirements for your destination country as you may need an additional document. The information we found for Japan in the INCB database specified that we would need a doctor’s note for her Ritalin. 

6. Will I get into trouble for carrying pills without the prescription bottles? 

It’s a risk. You could get the pills confiscated and/or have to undergo additional security checks (like a manual pat-down or search). To avoid problems, keep medication in its original container. Also, if you get stopped by police on the street in your destination city, it’s best not to have an unlabeled bottle of pills in your purse or pocket. 

7. What if my medication is listed as prohibited? 

Contact the destination country’s embassy to see if there is a way to get special permission to carry your medication. Some countries may prohibit certain medications entirely. If you’re headed to one of those countries and can’t get official permission, don’t risk it. Don’t assume you’ll be the  exception to the rule because you have a doctor’s note or you look a certain way. You don’t want your vacation to turn into an extended stay at a prison labor camp.

8. I have a prescription for my marijuana, can I take it on a plane (in the U.S.)? 

Do not bring marijuana when you travel internationally. Regarding domestic travel, the TSA issued a statement on medical marijuana that is unclear. Despite the fact that marijuana is a controlled substance, the TSA says they will overlook it. But what they “say” is not necessarily what they practice. They are not supposed to search my braids every time I go through, but they do—every single time. 

9. What if I am on a road trip in another country and I get pulled over. Should I tell the officer about my controlled medications? 

Officers probably are not concerned about your medications, unless they have reason to search the car. At that point, tell them about your controlled medications and exactly where they are located in the vehicle. 

Customs checkpoints at the borders of countries follow the same regulations as with airplane arrival. So, have your medication together and your documentation handy just in case your vehicle is pulled aside for a search. 

10. Do I need to worry about my controlled prescriptions when traveling in another country by bus or train? 

Probably not on buses. This mode of transportation does not have security checkpoints like the TSA. But if there ever is a reason for a search, just disclose what medications you have and where they are located. 

However, international travel by train may mean going through a security checkpoint. The train requirements for international travel may be similar to or more relaxed than the airports. Look on the train’s website or ask officials for more information when you book the ticket. 

Whatever mode of travel you choose, be sure to plan early and do the research on how your prescription medication is treated at your destination. A few minutes at the right websites will yield a wealth of information. At the very least, it will save you some time and relieve anxiety at security checkpoints. On the other hand, it could keep you from spending your holiday in jail.

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