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9 Common Medications That Are Banned in Other Countries

Updated: May 20, 2022

There are some surprisingly strict laws on both prescription and over-the-counter medications around the world. Don't pack something that might put you in jail.

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Shelves of medicines in pharmacy
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Ignorance of the law is no excuse

It sounds like something out of a movie, but traveling the world with some of your most used medications could land you with a massive fine or even jail time: “The medications most often restricted are controlled substances, such as opiates and stimulants, and psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants and antipsychotics,” says Claudia Zegans, MD, associate medical director at Global Rescue, a travel-risk and crisis-response firm providing medical advisory services, medical evacuations, and security extractions to travelers around the world. “However, even medications such as asthma inhalers and insulin are restricted or prohibited in some countries.” Check out some of the most common medications that are banned in other countries.

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Sudafed, Vicks

If you’re traveling to Japan and you have a cold, leave the over-the-counter medications at home. Common cold treatments like Sudafed and Vicks that contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine are banned in the country.

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Pain killer capsules called "Tramadol HCL 50 mg" in the packages.
Saowanee K/Shutterstock

Codeine, tramadol

Certain pain medications like codeine and tramadol (two of its common brand names: Ultram and ConZip) are banned in countries throughout the world. These “controlled drugs” require a prescription and could put you in hot water outside the United States. In countries like Greece, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, carrying these medications could result in arrest. Check out these 17 everyday medication mistakes that could make you sick.

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benadryl packaged
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If you’re used to popping a Benadryl for allergies or to help you sleep on the plane, talk to your doctor about alternatives if you’re traveling to Zambia. Diphenhydramine—the active ingredient in this allergy med—is banned there; in Japan, you’re limited to ten-milligram capsules.

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Ritalin bottle

Adderall, Ritalin

If you rely on medications for attention deficit disorder, you’ll have to leave Japan off your bucket list. The country has a zero-tolerance policy for methamphetamines and amphetamines—the active ingredients in many ADD drugs—even if you have your prescription or a note from your doctor. This is also true in Saudi Arabia. Check out these 9 ingredients used in the United States that are banned in other countries.

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ambien pill bottle
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Ambien, Intermezzo

Sleeping medications that contain zolpidem may be your best friend when adjusting to a new country’s time zone, but leave them at home if you’re traveling to Saudi Arabia or Nigeria. On your way to Singapore? You’ll need to obtain a license to legally bring in your Ambien.

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model airplane with multicolored pills from motion sickness clos
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Be prepared

Start reviewing your medications and trip itinerary at least two to three months before your vacation. Check with your country’s embassy or look into your destination country’s health service. “Some countries that post medication restrictions will also detail the procedures you can take to bring restricted medications into that country,” Dr. Zegans explains. “These procedures include special permitting procedures or documentation requirements, among others.” Also, consider meeting with a travel medical provider six to eight weeks before you leave. Your provider can help you determine which medications could be an issue and how to fill out the necessary paperwork. And don’t miss these 9 immunizations and medications you need to know about before you travel.

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When in doubt, ask

If you’re not sure whether your medications are legal in the country you’re visiting, always call the U.S. embassy in that country to find out. “With rapidly changing laws, it is always best to consult your embassy in the country you are visiting to know what you can and cannot bring into the country,” says Suzanne Garber, cofounder of Gauze, the largest digital network of global hospitals. “Simply having a note written by your doctor will not do you any good.”

Even a small amount of over-the-counter medication could cause big problems. “An aggressive border-control agent could fine or jail you,” says Garber. “The embassy is your first line of defense!”

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Pills in world map shape

What if your medication is banned?

If you find out that there is no way to legally enter the country with your medication, it’s time for some hard decisions. First, check with your prescribing doctor to find out if there is a legal alternative. “Be sure to try the new medication for an adequate period of time prior to travel to assess for efficacy and any side effects,” Dr. Zegans recommends.

It may also be possible to obtain your medication once you arrive at your destination. Just be careful where you buy it. “Don’t buy medication from street markets or unlicensed pharmacies,” says Tullia Marcolongo, executive director of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers. “Fake medicines are common worldwide and can cause serious illness or even death. Always get your medication from a reputable, licensed pharmacist.”

Sadly, if there is no way to enter a country with a medication you need, it may be time to take a hard look at your itinerary. “If your destination country has an absolute ban on your medication and your health requires that you continue your medication without interruption,” Dr. Zegans says, “you’ll have to change your plans.”

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Pills in blister pack, medicine

We know you wouldn’t, but just in case

If you’re thinking, “Who would know if I packed this?” think again. “Don’t attempt to enter a country with a banned medication,” Dr. Zegans says. “If discovered, your medication will be confiscated at a minimum, placing your health at risk. Many countries have severe penalties for possessing banned medications, including prison.”

It’s also not safe to mail your prescription to your hotel. “Don’t send medication through the mail,” says Marcolongo. “The extreme heat and cold during transit can alter the effectiveness of your medication. It is also possible that the package could be confiscated at the border.” Now that you know how to handle your meds, feel free to ignore these 10 popular travel tips that are no longer true.