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.

You usually need a doctor’s letter for medicines that cause addiction or other problems such as opiate painkillers and anti depressants. For regular medication such as blood pressure tablets, a copy of your NHS prescription should be enough.

It’s worth taking a doctor's letter with you explaining your condition and listing all the drugs you're taking with the amounts (dose) you take. You can also take a copy of your prescription. This will help if customs officers question you about them, if you need any treatment when you are 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

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 in a large city if possible. Never buy medicines at street markets. 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 medicines that get prescribed or you 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.

You can also ask your doctor or pharmacist about restrictions. There are websites that they can use to check by country, such as the International Society of Travel Medicine.

The International Narcotics Board also have information about medicines containing controlled drugs by country. 

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 licence if you need to take out or bring in more than the limit.

It’s best to check the countries information you are travelling to and from on controlled drugs, as it can vary quite a lot. It may also depend on the drug you are taking and on the exact amount.

Controlled drugs are mostly painkillers but others include barbiturates and sedatives. Drugs that are controlled in the UK are generally controlled in other countries. But some countries have more restrictions so it's best to check. If you do need a licence, make sure you apply at least 10 days before your travel date.

Taking a doctor's letter

Your GP or specialist doctor can write this. If you are getting it from your GP surgery there might be a charge for the letter.

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)
  • the amount you take and how often
  • your type of cancer
  • the treatment you’ve had
  • the country / countries you are going to and dates of travel

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 properly 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 liquids through security is 100mls per container. Medicines can come in bottles larger than 100mls, so it’s best to call your airline and airport to check if they want anything specific from you other than a doctor’s letter and prescription.

Remember do not pour out the medicine into small containers. It needs to be fully labelled in its original container.

Check with your pharmacist about how best to store and travel with medicines that need to be kept at a certain temperature. As some might be fine at room temperature for a while. Or you might need to transport them using a cool bag, icepack or thermos flask. 

Before you leave also check that where you’re staying has somewhere suitable for you to keep your medicines cool.

Needing oxygen

If you need oxygen, you can arrange to take this with you. But allow plenty of time to sort it out, because it can take a while.

Oxygen on a plane

Some airlines provide oxygen for passengers, others allow you to bring your own and some won’t let you. Before you book it’s best to make sure what the airline’s policy on oxygen is. Some airlines might also ask for an extra payment if you need oxygen. 

The European Lung Foundation have a database of airlines that list individual oxygen policies.