Carrying Medicines Internationally

If you are travelling for a holiday or for business, there will be times that you need to take medicines with you. This could be something simple like a packet of paracetamol (acetaminophen) for headaches, to something more complicated such as insulin for diabetes. Carrying medicines can pose many issues when travelling from the quantity you wish to take, to how to store them correctly over many hours or even if they are permitted in the country you wish to visit. If you plan or need to take medicines abroad there are many things you must consider and while you will know some of them you won't know them all.

But we've covered them all in this post to help you travel better with medicines.

Legal Restrictions when Carrying Medicines Abroad

Restrictions on the import of medicines vary between countries. Some countries, such as the UAE, have very strict rules about what can be brought in, restricting medicines as seemingly innocuous as cold remedies and Hormone Replacement Therapy.

Always seek advice from the embassy or high commission of the country you wish to visit well before you need to travel to find out what special precautions you need to take to carry your medicines legally. (If you perform a Google search for ‘The London Diplomatic List’, this will provide you with an up to date list of foreign embassies and consulates in the UK.) You may be required to apply to the country you wish to visit for prior authorisation to bring your medicines into the country. For example, Singapore requires you to apply for authorisation with copies of your prescription, flight details etc.

Taking Controlled Drugs Abroad

You must be particularly careful if you want to carry medicines called ‘controlled drugs’ e.g. morphine (MST, Sevredol, Oramorph), temazepam and methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta). Medicines may be classed as controlled drugs in the country you intend to visit, but not in your home country. Always check. Without the correct documentation possession of such medicines could constitute a criminal offence, and land you in serious trouble. The International Narcotics Control Board provides some information on national requirements for travellers under medical treatment carrying preparations containing narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances. The information is by no means exhaustive or complete.

If you are travelling from the UK for long periods and need to carry controlled drugs then you will need to apply for a license from the Home Office. You’ll need to apply for a licence if you’re either:

  • Travelling for 3 months or more.
  • Carrying a supply of medicine that would last you 3 months or more.

You can find the latest information here on

Storage of Medicines When Travelling

Do you know the best way to store your medication? Does it have any special requirements? Most tablets have to be stored below 25-30°c. Certain eye drops or creams may need to be kept refrigerated. Read the leaflet inside the box or consult your pharmacist for more information. Storing medication incorrectly may affect the shelf life, stability, effectiveness and even safety of your medicines.

Check the expiry dates of your medicines before you travel. Will they expire before you return home? Are the storage conditions likely to affect them? Ask your pharmacist for medicines with the longest expiry date possible, explaining your situation.

Taking Insulin Abroad

Taking insulin abroad will require more specialist handling. Insulin needs to be kept refrigerated until opened, when it can usually be stored at room temperature (bearing in mind that the product information will be based on the room temperature of your home country which may differ quite substantially from the room temperature at your destination). Insulin must never be allowed to freeze. Think about how you will keep your insulin cool for the entire journey. Frio wallets will keep insulin between 18-26°c for 45 hours. They can then be reactivated to keep the insulin cool for subsequent periods. Frio wallets can be bought in pharmacies, at Amazon or online from frio UK. More storage information can be found by contacting the manufacturer of your insulin. Remember that once insulin has been removed from the fridge (2-8ºc) it must be used within a month. Diabetes UK provide good advice about travelling with diabetes.

How much medicine you should take on holiday

Do you have a sufficient supply? Is your medicine available where you are going?

We recommend that you consult your doctor at least two months before you plan to travel to sort out your medication, in case special arrangements need be made. If you need regular medication for a stable long-term condition, your doctor may prescribe medication in advance but they may be restricted in the amount they can give you so think about how you will get more if you are travelling for a long period. Ask if they can give more with a private prescription.

It can be useful to find out if your medication is available in the country you plan to travel to, but you must be sure that the supply is reputable and reliable. Counterfeit (fake) medicines are a growing problem throughout the world. The World Health Organisation estimates many countries in Africa have areas where more than 30% of the medicines on sale can be counterfeit. A fair estimate of counterfeit medicines in developing countries is between 10% and 30%. Counterfeit medicines can appear identical to the real thing but can be very dangerous and/or completely ineffective. If at all possible source your medication before you travel.

Hand Luggage Rules for Medicines

Anyone who has flown in recent years knows there are restrictions on the liquids you can carry in your hand luggage. If you do take liquids in your hand luggage the containers must hold no more than 100ml, the containers must be in a single, transparent, resealable plastic bag, which holds no more than a litre and measures approximately 20cm x 20cm. The contents must fit comfortably inside the bag so it can be sealed.

You’re allowed to carry essential medicines of more than 100ml in your hand luggage, including liquid dietary foodstuffs and inhalers, but you’ll need supporting documentation from a relevant medical professional (for example a letter from your doctor or a copy of your prescription). The same applies for gel packs.

Airport staff might need to open the containers to screen the liquids at the security point.

Item Allowed in hand luggage Allowed in hold luggage
Tablets and capsules Yes Yes
Essential liquid medicines Yes Yes
Hypodermic syringes Yes Yes
Inhalers Yes Yes
Cooling gel packs Yes Yes
Medical equipment (for example CPAP and TENS machines Yes Yes
Oxygen cylinders Contact your airline Contact your airline

If you carry medicines which aren’t deemed essential, which are over 100ml, they will be confiscated. So make sure your medicines have a pharmacy dispensing label on them and you carry some official notification that you need them. If you have medicines which haven’t been prescribed by a Doctor, such as infant paracetamol suspension, it must be in a bottle of 100ml or less.

Are there any other forms in which you could carry your medicine? Paracetamol and ibuprofen can be purchased in sachets which are ideal for travelling. But remember these will need to be placed in the liquids bag.

Checklist Carrying Medicines Abroad

  1. You should always carry your medicines in their correctly labelled containers, accompanied by a copy of the prescription, including the generic names of the medicines. Make a note of the name of the manufacturer of your medicines. Check whether the country you are visiting requires you to carry a letter from your doctor explaining what your medicines are and what they are for.
  2. If your medicines are controlled drugs you should always carry a letter from your doctor explaining what your medicines are and what they are for. Don’t forget to check whether there are any special requirements for carrying controlled drugs into the country you plan to visit.
  3. If you are travelling with controlled drugs in or out of the certain countries, including the UK, you will need a personal import or export licence if you are carrying more than a three-month supply. If you are in any doubt about your medicines you should declare them at customs.
  4. Carry some spare medication in your hold luggage in case you lose your hand luggage.
  5. Consider carrying some extra medication with you. If you are diabetic you may find that your insulin requirements change in response to a new climate or different foods etc.
  6. If you buy medicines abroad, make sure they are from a reputable pharmacy and always ask for a receipt. Good clinics may be able to direct you to a reliable pharmacy.
  7. When returning home check that any medicines you have obtained abroad are legal in your home country.
  8. Make sure that your travel insurance covers any pre-existing medical conditions and that it will repatriate you home in the event of an emergency.
  9. Before embarking on your trip you must find out how you are going to maintain your supply of medication.

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