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FDA Warns Travelers About Bringing Medications into the U.S.

Tim Boyer's picture
Foreign meds not allowed in U.S. luggage

It may seem innocent enough, but bringing something as innocuous as an over-the-counter med bought in a non-U.S. pharmacy into the U.S. while traveling can essentially be as illegal as being a narcotics mule. Here are the answers to a few common questions the FDA recently provided for U.S. and visiting foreigners about bringing over-the-counter and prescription medications into the U.S.


According to the FDA’s Division of Drug Information, FDA pharmacist Lindsay E. Wagner tells consumers that the laws concerning transporting over-the-counter and prescription medications from other countries into the U.S. are there to help protect you.

“As a pharmacist at the FDA, I advise people to remember that we at FDA cannot ensure that medication’s approved in other countries are safe or effective, or have been manufactured properly,” says Ms. Wagner.

However, not only can foreign meds harm your health, but can also run you into legal trouble with the FDA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents operating the nation’s airports. And, in fact, all three agencies may have differing requirements on what can and cannot be transported into the U.S. So, the FDA is warning travelers that to stay within the confines of the law you have to check with each of the agencies before attempting to bring a foreign medication into the U.S.


To help you stay legal and safe, here is a summary of tips the FDA offers concerning traveling and medications:

Traveling and meds tip #1: Show that there is validity to why you have a particular medication in your luggage. Be sure to have a valid prescription or doctor’s note—written in English—to bring medication to the U.S. with meds in their original container with the doctor’s instructions printed on the bottle.

Traveling and meds tip #2: Some foreign generics of legal meds in the U.S. may not be allowed. The FDA does not permit personal importation of unapproved versions of FDA-approved drugs from foreign countries due to that the FDA cannot assure that foreign-made versions of FDA-approved drugs have been properly manufactured, are safe and effective, and are the same formulation as the FDA-approved versions.

Traveling and meds tip #3: A U.S. pharmacy will likely not be able to refill a foreign prescription. Be aware that if a visiting relative needs a refill of their foreign prescription, depending on the state you live in they may not be able to get a refill. The only option may be to have them visit a U.S. doctor for an evaluation and legal prescription for their medical condition.

Traveling and meds tip #4: Do not attempt to have someone ship or mail a refill to you. According to the FDA, in most cases, it’s illegal for people to import drugs into the United States for personal use because drugs available in other countries haven’t been evaluated or approved by FDA for use or sale in the U.S. However, there are caveats as explained in tip #5.

Traveling and meds tip #5: When traveling, carry no more than a 90-day supply of medication. But, if your stay extends longer than 90 days, you may have additional medication sent to you by mail or courier with proper documentation that may require a copy of your visa and passport, a letter from your doctor, and a copy of your prescription (in English). To ensure that you are doing so legally the FDA recommends contacting the FDA with the request and following their Personal Importation Policy that provides instructions for a review of the personal importation of medications.

Under the review, the FDA considers the following criteria:

• The drug is for a serious condition for which there is no effective treatment available in the U.S.

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• There is no marketing or promotion of the drug to U.S. residents.

• The drug doesn’t represent an unreasonable health risk.

• You verify in writing that you’re importing the drug for your own personal use.

• You have a letter, written in English, from your doctor saying the drug is a continuation of treatment that began outside the United States or you provide the name and address of a U.S. licensed physician who will supervise your use of the foreign drug. The letter should accompany the package and be addressed to a Customs and Border Protection officer or broker.

• You’re not importing more than a three-month supply of the drug.

However, even with legal approval, getting the meds into your possession may take longer than you can wait. The FDA says that if the medicine is sent through the mail, Customs might detain it until an FDA inspector can physically examine the package.

To speed things along, the FDA advises that you make sure the outside package is marked and states that it contains a letter to the CBP officer or broker. The best option is to send the package by a courier service and flag it so the U.S. Customs broker will alert FDA inspectors about the special circumstances for sending the package.

For more about traveler health, here are some select articles that can make your next trip more enjoyable and safer:

Do You Know How Much Radiation and Nude Exposure You Get at an Airport?

Travel Medical Kit Recommendations for a Safe Summer Vacation

Avoid Toxic Travel with These 3 Holiday Travel Tips from Dr. Oz

FDA Reminds Consumers that Taking Expired Meds Can Harm Your Health

Reference: FDA Consumer Update― “5 Tips for Traveling to the U.S. With Medications



I have a year supply of FDA approved medication that I would like to bring back when I renter the US. Can I carry this in my carry on?