Those of us with chronic conditions or a reliance on pharmaceutical drugs deal with an extra layer of anxiety when adventuring. Whether we’re on a long-term trip or a week-long holiday, travelling with prescription medication can be a daunting experience.
I’ve travelled extensively, carrying months worth of medication and medical equipment and I’ve rarely had an issue. There have been some hiccups; wasted days, lengthy email exchanges and long expensive phone calls but all in all, travelling with medical supplies can be relatively straightforward as long as you plan ahead!
While the advice in the bulk of this post applies to anyone travelling with medication, no matter where you’re going, we’ve included a specific section dedicated to travelling with medication in Southeast Asia. After all, it’s the region we know best!
For some context, I have a spinal injury that was supposed to leave me paralysed. I suffer from chronic pain and take multiple painkillers, anti-depressants and NSAIDs. Due to the nerve damage, I’m also unable to use the toilet properly so rely on medical equipment such as catheters and bowel irrigation systems. I’ve travelled across Southeast Asia and South America with these drugs and supplies.
How Can You Travel With Prescription Medication?
There’s a lot of fear and anxiety around travelling with prescription medication. How much you can take, what drugs you’re allowed to carry across borders and how to pack your supplies are all things that need to be considered.
In some instances, the drugs you take at home might be completely banned at your destination, or they may require a doctor’s note. It’s common for countries to impose limits on the amount of medication you can bring with you – 30-days worth is the number we see most frequently.
If you need to travel with prescription meds, read on to find the best advice and tips to make sure you stay safe and have a trouble-free trip!
Disclaimer: This article is meant for guidance only. It’s been written using research and our own experience travelling with medical supplies. We’re not experts and are not responsible for your choices when it comes to backpacking with prescription medication.
1. Plan Ahead
The first thing you need to do is plan ahead. It can take months to book appointments, sort out medication and plan for an extended trip. This is especially true if you suffer from a chronic condition or rely on pharmaceuticals.
Honestly, it’s never too early to start talking to doctors, pharmacists and other medical professionals.
2. Get Good Travel Insurance
The right travel insurance can have a huge impact when traveling with prescription medication.
People travelling with common medications such as birth control will be fine with one of the well-known travel insurers, but those companies are not set up for more complex medical situations.
Specialist insurers such as Staysure offer the same standard cover as backpacker insurance companies but can also help with situations or emergencies related to your condition and/or medication.
When I ran out of catheters in Thailand, Staysure were able to locate a pharmacy that stocked similar products and provide me with a letter written in Thai explaining exactly what I needed. This allowed me to easily pick up catheters that I would otherwise never have been able to find!
3. Talk to Your Doctor
When planning a trip, visiting your doctor should be one of the first things you do. If you’re heading to a relatively common destination, most doctors will have a general idea of what medications you can take into the country.
If you suffer from a chronic condition, this is even more important as your doctor will be able to give you advice on how to manage it on the road.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that different doctors have their own opinions on travelling with a chronic condition. I once had a doctor tell me not to travel out of the UK at all, while the doctor in the room next door spent half an hour giving me tips and off-the-beaten-track recommendations for my trip!
Doctors are medical experts and their medical opinion should always be taken onboard – but it’s your life, do with it what you want!
4. Check Restrictions for Countries You’re Travelling to
It’s important to check the meds you take aren’t classed as controlled or illegal drugs in the countries you’re visiting. In some cases this information is relatively easy to find, in others it’s almost impossible and you’ll need to contact an embassy to find out.
- Information on what medication can be taken into Thailand
- Information on what medication can be taken into Vietnam
- Information on what medication can be taken into Malaysia
- Information on what medication can be taken into the Philippines
- Information on what medication can be taken into Singapore
The International Narcotics Control Board has information on what drugs can and can’t be taken into a country. Be aware that not all countries are listed but this is a good place to start!
Some meds can’t be taken out of your home country – if you’re taking a controlled medication (opiates or very strong painkillers for example), there’s a chance you won’t actually be allowed to leave the country with them. You can often check your home country’s government website to find this information, or speak to your doctor – they should be able to find out pretty quickly.
Check quantities – You should also check to see if your destination country has a limit on the quantity of meds you can take in. It’s common for nations to impose limits on how many days’ worth of medication you can enter with. 30-days is the most common but some countries limit certain drugs to just two weeks’ worth!
Don’t forget to check the rules on countries you’re transiting through. You need to ensure you’re allowed to take your meds there too!
Prescriptions – Make sure you take a copy of your prescription with you and keep it with your medication at all times. Put it in a plastic wallet, so it doesn’t get wet or ruined and keep a copy elsewhere. Also, be sure to double-check that your paperwork 100% matches the medication you’re carrying.
Doctor’s letter – As well as a copy of your prescription, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor to write a letter, stating your medication, why you’re taking it, how many pills per day, etc. It’s best if the letter is official, coming on headed paper and preferably typed and signed – doctors have notoriously bad handwriting anyway!
6. Make Sure Your Meds Are in the Original Packaging
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t decant all your pills into plastic pots or bags. Sure they’ll take up more room in their original packaging but medication looks much less suspicious when kept this way. Keep the original leaflets inside the boxes too!
7. Carrying Medication in Hand Luggage vs Cabin Luggage
You should always keep the majority of your medication in your hand luggage. If your cabin bag gets lost or delayed, at least you’ll have your medication with you! When you arrive at your destination, it’s a good idea to store your supplies across different bags. This way you won’t be left high and dry if one of your bags gets lost or stolen!
If you’re travelling with needles and syringes, these can be taken on as hand luggage but you’ll definitely need a doctor’s note. Don’t forget this, or you may have your meds confiscated!
Officially, some medications need to be declared when you arrive in a country but this is checked and enforced less often than your proof of onward travel so don’t worry about it too much!
Liquid meds over 100ml? Contact the airline to see how to proceed. Usually, they’ll have provisions in place to allow you to travel with these extra liquids. You’re likely to need documentation from your doctor so ensure you do this in advance! You can also go over the hand luggage limits if you’re carrying a lot of medical equipment – I went well over the weight limit carrying catheters and the airline didn’t even ask to see my doctor’s note!
8. Check Expiration Dates
There’s no point taking six months’ worth of meds travelling if they only have a three-month expiration. Make sure your medication is well within date when you go travelling. You may be able to ask your doctor to ensure you get meds with a long shelf life!
With that said, 90% of medication works perfectly even 15 years after the expiration date so take the dates with a pinch of salt!
9. Storing Meds
Travelling with medication that needs to be kept at a specific temperature can be a challenge. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist the best way to store your medication. A thermos flask or cool pouch can help keep your drugs at the right temperature.
10. Over-the-Counter Meds
It’s worth being aware that some over-the-counter medications contain active ingredients that may be illegal in some countries. Codeine, for example, is found in many over-the-counter medications but as an opiate, it’s banned in some countries. If in doubt, leave over-the-counter meds at home to avoid getting into trouble at the border!
11. Have a Backup Plan
It doesn’t matter how well you plan or prepare, sometimes sh*t just happens. You should always have a backup plan in case you find yourself abroad without your medication. There are several things you can do but each will depend on the prescription drugs or medical supplies you need.
It’s often possible to buy meds while travelling. Many pharmacies abroad will sell medication that’s only available with a prescription at home. However, you need to be careful. Counterfeit drugs are a real problem in some parts of the world. Only ever buy medication from a proper pharmacy – ensure it’s part of a respected chain and the building is airconditioned to keep drugs at the right temperature. Never buy medication from an open market!
You should learn, or at least have written down, all three names of your medication: chemical, brand and generic. This way you’re much more likely to be able to find it in a pharmacy. Generic and chemical names should always be the same but brand names will differ depending on where you are.
A good insurance company will be able to help with this process. Contact them if you get caught short. They should be able to point you toward a reputable pharmacy and tell you what to ask for. They may even provide you with a translated letter to give the pharmacist explaining what you need.
You can also contact the drug manufacturers to see if their products are available in your destination country.
Make emergency plans – If you’re travelling with someone, explain to them the details of your condition/medication. Explain why you need the medication and let them know how they can best support you if you need their help overseas.
Get them posted – Okay, this is terrible advice but it’s saved me in the past. And I wouldn’t have needed to employ this tactic had I planned properly and worked out exactly what I needed to do!
It’s possible to get some medication or supplies delivered from a friend or family member via courier while travelling. Some nations have lax systems of checking mail that enters the country. I had medication and other items posted into Laos when I was there. You need to be careful when doing this as it’s technically illegal across a lot of the world. Never mark the package with anything that suggests it could be medicine and cross your fingers that the parcel is not picked out for further screening!
Really the number one rule is plan ahead. Really far ahead. Do so and reduce the chance of anything going wrong with your prescription medication or supplies as you travel!
Travelling to Southeast Asia With Prescription Medication
Many backpackers ask us if it’s okay to travel to Southeast Asia with prescription medication. With such strict drug laws in many Southeast Asian countries, travellers worry that they’ll get stopped at borders, have their medication confiscated or, even worse, appear in an upcoming episode of Banged Up Abroad!
This story about an Australian tourist getting caught carrying prescription medication into Indonesia sparked fear amongst backpackers. But was this incident preventable? Hint: the answer is yes! If he had read up on what to expect, this traveller could’ve avoided a few days in a Balinese cell!
Honestly though, that’s a rare case and most of the time travelling through Southeast Asia with prescription medication is a non-issue. People don’t even check. But that’s not to say you should just risk it. If you follow the tips in this article, plan ahead and prepare, you’ll be fine! Take it from someone who knows – don’t let your medical needs hold you back from seeing the world!
Join Over 20,000 Happy Backpackers in Our Facebook Group!
Find travel buddies. Get advice. Have all your questions answered by travellers on the ground in Southeast Asia right now.