It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to taking medication abroad. There can be serious consequences of travelling with something that’s banned or restricted in the country you’re visiting – you could be questioned or have your medication destroyed, and some holidaymakers have even ended up in jail.
Bringing in small quantities of medication for personal use is unlikely to land you in trouble, especially if you can prove it’s for personal use. But it's important to think ahead and take the necessary steps to ensure your trip isn't derailed by the contents of your suitcase.
The rules on travelling with conventional medication haven’t changed since Brexit, which is handy because they’re complicated enough already. Even finding clear information online is harder than you might expect, which is worrying when the stakes are so high if you get it wrong. Here's what you need to know.
Whichever country you’re visiting, the first thing to check is that you’re complying with the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. When leaving the UK with medicine that contains a controlled drug (check the gov.uk website for a list of the most common), you need to be able to prove to UK authorities that it’s for your personal use with your prescription or a letter from your doctor.
Book an appointment with your GP or visit a travel clinic at least a month before travelling
If you do need an official letter, or if you wish to discuss other health requirements related to your trip, such as vaccinations, malaria tablets or getting additional supplies of prescription medication, book in well before your trip. Note that NHS rules preclude provision of more than a couple of months of prescription medications at a time, even if you don’t usually pay prescription charges. Even in the current climate, when many travellers are likely to be planning trips at short notice to stay on the right side of changing restrictions, you need to prepare ahead.
Check whether you need a personal license
If you plan to leave the UK for three months or more, and you’re carrying enough prescription medication of any kind to last that long, you need to apply for a personal licence from the Home Office. Do this at least 15 working days before your intended date of travel.
Keep your medication in its original packaging and take a copy of your prescription
This will help to convince border authorities to let you pass, but some countries may require additional paperwork, such as a letter from your GP. Some surgeries charge for this and it’s also a drain on GPs’ time, so check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting before requesting one.
According to Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, GP and author of three travel health guides, a print-out of your medical summary is usually sufficient, provided it’s rubber-stamped, signed and dated. GP surgeries can usually provide this for free.
Rules for bringing medication into another country vary significantly depending on where you’re going, but certain types of drug are commonly restricted around the world. These include:
Codeine or medication containing codeine, such as over-the-counter medications, including Nurofen Plus and Solpadeine. Taking codeine through customs without approval can get you arrested in several countries, including Thailand and the UAE.
Strong painkillers derived from poppy seeds, such as morphine and tramadol
Plus, all of the below are among the categories of medication that are restricted in lots of countries:
You should be especially cautious if you are planning on travelling anywhere with any of these, or with medical equipment such as syringes or an EpiPen, as you’re likely to need some form of written permission.
You’re allowed to travel with up to five different prescribed medicines for personal use, but you can take no more than two boxes of each medicine. If you have to travel with more, you might be required to obtain permission from the Greek National Organization for Medicines when you arrive. Codeine is a controlled substance in Greece and a doctor’s prescription is needed in all cases, so you can’t bring in medications that contain codeine and were bought over the counter in the UK
To bring in more than a month’s personal supply of non-narcotic medication into Japan, you need to get a Yakkan Shoumei import certificate before you travel. For drugs that Japan classifies as narcotic, you must get permission from the relevant Narcotics Control Department in Japan, irrespective of amount. This includes codeine, diazepam and pseudoephedrine, an ingredient that’s found in some nasal decongestant sprays.
You can bring any prescribed medication into Mexico for personal use, regardless of the active component, but you need a fair amount of paperwork.
You need a prescription or letter from your GP stating the amount of medication you’ll need during your stay, what the daily dose is and how much you’re bringing into the country (which cannot exceed the amount you’ll need for your stay). And, to make things more complicated, the prescription must be translated into Spanish.
Among other countries in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has a reputation for being one of the strictest countries in the world with regards to bringing in medication. It has a zero-tolerance approach for drug related offences, so make sure you check the UAE Ministry of Health website and seek approval to bring in any medication on its list of controlled substances. This includes Exedrin headache tablets, Tylenol arthritis medication and Niquitin mint lozenges, as well as skincare products, herbal medicines and poppy-seed-based opiate painkillers, not to mention any poppy seeds themselves.