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Taking medicines abroad

When you need to take medicines abroad, it’s worth planning ahead. Some drugs are restricted. You might need a doctor’s letter or export licence.

Planning ahead

Make sure you have enough medicines to last for the whole trip, plus a few extra days in case there are any delays.

It’s worth taking a doctor's letter with you, listing all the drugs you're taking and the doses. You can also take a copy of the actual prescription. This will help if you need to see a doctor while you’re away or if you lose your medicines and need a new prescription.

Remember that some medicines you can buy over the counter in the UK might be controlled drugs in other countries. Controlled drugs have strict legal controls over how they are stored and prescribed.

Any special arrangements you need to make will depend on:

  • how long you're going for
  • where you're going
  • the type of medicine you're taking

Most people going on a 2 week holiday won’t need to do anything special.

Doctors can only prescribe a limited amount of any drug in the NHS. So if you’re going away for more than 3 months, make sure you'll be able to get any medicines you need in the country you’re going to.

Buying medicines abroad

You need to be careful when buying medicines abroad. In some developing countries, there is a high risk of buying medicines that are poor quality or that don't contain the same ingredients. 

To reduce this risk, you should only buy medicines from a licensed pharmacy. You can check with a pharmacist that the medicine has the same active ingredient as the one you were taking. Some embassies can give you a list of reliable pharmacies.

Checking restrictions

For most of the medicines you can buy in a pharmacy, there are no restrictions on what you can take out of the UK. But some countries have restrictions on the type and amount of medicines you can take in. This usually applies to drugs that can cause addiction or other problems such as:

  • opiate painkillers
  • mind altering drugs
  • anabolic steroids

Restrictions might also apply to medicines that need to be injected. 

The restrictions vary a lot between countries. Some countries might include some drugs that you can buy in the UK, such as painkillers containing codeine.

The Home Office recommends that you check with the country’s embassy or High Commission about any restrictions they have.

Licences to take controlled drugs abroad

Some drugs, including all controlled drugs, have limits on the amount you can take out and bring in to the UK.

You might need to get an export license if you need to take out or bring in more than the limit.

You won’t usually need a licence for a trip which is less than 3 months. But it may depend on the drug you are taking and on the exact dose.

Controlled drugs are mostly painkillers but others include barbiturates and sedatives. Drugs that are controlled in the UK are generally controlled in other countries. If you do need a licence, make sure you apply at least 10 days before your travel date.

Taking a doctor's letter

You should take a letter written by your GP or specialist, with a list of your medicines. This will make it easier if customs officers question you about them or if you need any treatment when you are away.

Ask your doctor for the letter at least 3 weeks before you plan to go, so they have time to write it.

The letter should contain:

  • your name
  • your medicines (particularly any drugs that have an effect on the brain such as certain painkillers, or any medicines that you take as an injection)
  • your type of cancer
  • the treatment you’ve had

It can help to list the chemical (generic) name of the drug and not just the brand (trade) name. This is because the brand name might be different in the country you are visiting.

Carry the letter in your hand luggage so that you can show it to customs officers if you need to.

Travelling with medicines

Carry all your medicines in the proper, labelled containers that your pharmacist gave you. If you carry unnamed loose tablets, a regular customs officer won't know what they are. You could be suspected of drug smuggling.

Make sure you take any controlled medicines in your hand luggage, with your doctor’s letter. If you need to take any injections with you on the plane, you’ll need a doctor’s letter explaining that you need to carry them in your hand luggage.

Remember to give your doctor plenty of time to write any letters you need.

It might be a good idea to carry medicines that aren’t controlled drugs in both your hand luggage and suitcase, in case one bag goes missing.

Check whether very cold temperatures can damage any of your medicines if you’re travelling by plane and packing them in your suitcase. Baggage holds in planes are very cold, although many planes have a heated area. 

Solid medicines such as tablets or capsules are normally fine in cold temperatures but you need to take liquids in your hand luggage. The usual limit of 100mls per container of liquid doesn't apply to medicines, but they should be in their original container. You will need to show the security staff your doctor's letter or prescription copy as proof that they are medicines.

Carry any medicines you need to keep cool in a cool bag. And check that there’s somewhere suitable to store them where you’re staying.

Needing oxygen

You can arrange to take oxygen with you if you are breathless. Allow plenty of time to sort it out, because it can take a while.

Information and help

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