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Traveling with Medications

If you are currently taking a prescription medication, you will want to plan ahead to take enough of your medication to last the duration of your travel. Medication cannot be shipped to you overseas and overseas pharmacies cannot refill U.S.-based prescriptions. Review the following guidance and be sure to begin this process at least three weeks before your departure in case you encounter delays.

Obtain sufficient quantities of your prescription medications

  • First, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Tell them how long you will study abroad and ask for a prescription for your entire time abroad. You may need a copy of your acceptance letter or flight itinerary to prove the duration of your program. To make things easier at customs and border crossings, also ask for a copy of the prescription and a healthcare provider’s statement documenting your condition(s), medication(s) and dosage(s). 
  • Before you leave, ask about managing new or different side effects due to the new environment, sleep patterns, time zones, activities and diet. Also, discuss managing dosage as related to time-released medications.
  • Second, contact customer service at your domestic insurance provider.  Ask for a “vacation override” or a “prescription override” which allows you to get an extra supply before you go. The “override” allows you to get your prescription earlier without a penalty. However, not all insurance plans allow for an “override”
  •  You may also need to call your pharmacy to make sure they have sufficient quantities of your medication or show documentation from your physician to expedite the refill. If there’s a problem at the pharmacy, ask them to contact your insurance company directly.
  • Finally, if you are unable to obtain your medication before you travel and need to renew a prescription abroad, contact GeoBlue prior to departure to ensure that the medication is available locally. Travelers will also need to schedule an appointment with a local physician abroad to receive a new prescription.

Learn more about Northwestern’s GeoBlue plan.

Prescriptions medications unavailable or illegal abroad

Keep in mind that certain prescribed medications to control psychosis, attention-deficit disorder or chronic/severe pain may not be available or even considered illegal in some foreign countries. Customs agents will confiscate medications that are illegal, if discovered. Contact GeoBlue to determine whether or not such medications are available in the destination country, if not, travelers will be strongly encouraged to work with their treating physicians to seek alternatives treatment. Talk with a physician far enough in advance of travel to arrange appropriate dosage as well as manage potential side effects.

It is illegal to send prescription drugs through domestic and international mail within and from the United States. Only approved pharmaceuticals and license-holding distributors and receivers may ship and receive approved drugs.  Similar restrictions apply even for over-the-counter medication, and comparable laws exist in most other countries. (21 U.S.C. 801, 21 CFR 1300 and 18 U.S.C. 1716. Suggested reading: "How to Make Sure You Travel with Medication Legally"

New or experimental treatments/therapies

Many common conditions in the U.S. are being treated with the latest advances in science, and sometimes these are not available abroad. Travelers with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease, hemophilia or diabetes, who are on a newer treatment program, please contact GeoBlue to discuss care options abroad.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) medication restrictions

While it is advisable to take a variety of over-the-counter medications with you abroad for symptoms such as pain (Tylenol, Advil, etc.) or stomach distress (Pepto-Bismol, Tums, etc.), some U.S.-based cold medications contain restricted ingredients. For example, Japan has restrictions the import of certain OTC medications, such as Nyquil and Sudafed.

Flying with your medications

Keep any medications in their original containers. Pack all toiletries to be carried-on in a small, zip-lock plastic bag. Liquids cannot exceed 3.4 ounces. Read the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines for carrying on toiletries and other liquids.

Place all prescriptions in their original packaging and remember to pack them in your carry-on luggage, with copies of the prescription. Consider carrying a doctor’s note explaining a need for the prescription drugs you have packed - in English and, if possible, in the language of your destination(s).

For more information, read the U.S. Department of State report on Traveling with Medications.