Taking medication overseas? What you need to know about travelling with prescription drugs and how it impacts your travel insurance
Travelling overseas with prescription drugs can quickly become a nightmare if you’re not prepared and don’t know the local laws regarding prescription medications. This guide looks at how travel insurance treats claims for prescription medication, what you’ll need to do before heading off including who to see, what you need to about travelling with prescription drugs and what to do in an emergency.
Are prescription drugs covered by travel insurance?
Most standard travel insurance policies do not cover loss or theft of prescription drugs. If you’ll be taking regular medication during your trip, you generally won't be able to find cover for them as the drugs are for a pre-existing condition. However, if you are hospitalised overseas and are prescribed medication for a new aliment, you may be able to make a claim under the overseas medical section of your policy.
Policies designed for senior travellers, travellers with disabilities and those with pre-existing medical conditions often include cover for medications. Your pre-existing condition will need to be declared, assessed and approved by your insurer before you’ll be able to purchase such a policy. Whether you can or not will depend on what your condition is, whether it’s under control and whether your doctor and your insurer consider you fit to travel.
How much will I be covered for?
Even if your travel insurance covers medication, you may not be reimbursed for the entire amount of your loss. It will depend on how much your prescriptions cost to replace while you’re overseas. A drug that is subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in Australia, for instance, may not be in a country such as the USA where replacement drugs may be very expensive due to that country’s costly health care system.
Conditions for taking prescription drugs overseas
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What should I do if I am planning on travelling and need to take prescription drugs with me?
The first thing you should do if you plan to take prescription drugs with you overseas is to make sure they are legal in the country you are travelling to. Laws vary across the world and what is legal in Australia may be a banned substance in another country. You can find out if your prescriptions are legal by contacting the embassy of the country you plan to visit or by calling the Australian Government’s Travelling with PBS Medicine Enquiry Line on 1800 500 147.
There are also limits on the amount of PBS medicines you can take with you overseas. To avoid potential problems at customs, get your doctor to write you a letter outlining your medications and the prescribed dose and confirming that they are for your personal use only.
Finally, never take PBS medicines out of the country for someone else. Customs may consider this to be trafficking, as the medication must be for your personal use only. Your medication could be confiscated or you could be prosecuted and fined.
Tips for travelling overseas with prescription medication and pre-existing conditions
If you have a pre-existing medical condition that requires regular medication, here are some additional tips when travelling overseas.
- If your medication needs to be kept cool, notify the airline before your flight. Most carriers will allow you to place your medication in one of the aircraft’s refrigerators, but some will not due to hygiene concerns.
- Rather than using pill containers or generic bottles, leave your prescription medicines in their original packaging, which includes their name and dosage amounts. This will help customs identify them and make it easier for you to replace them while overseas.
- Always carry your medication in your carry-on luggage in case your check-in baggage is lost or stolen.
Can I send myself drugs overseas?
If you run out of medicine while you’re overseas, you can see a doctor in the country you are visiting and try to get the local version, depending on whether or not it is legal in that country. Alternatively, you can contact your doctor in Australia and have your medicines sent to you.
You can have PBS medicines sent to you from Australia if:
- They are for your personal use only
- The amount does not contravene Australian export regulations
- They are legal in the country you are visiting
To verify they are for your personal use and are no more than is allowed by law, your medication will need to be accompanied by a letter from your doctor or by a customs declaration form, available from any Australian post office. You’ll need to contact the embassy or consulate of the country you’re visiting to determine whether your medication is legal there.
Checklist before heading overseas with medication
Taking medication with you overseas requires some forethought. The following checklist will help you ensure you’ve ticked all the boxes before you leave:
- Are your medications in their original packaging?
- Are they in your carry-on rather than check-in luggage?
- Have you arranged for their refrigeration in transit (if applicable)?
- Do you have enough for your entire trip?
- Do you have a doctor’s letter regarding your medications?
- Are they legal in the country you are visiting?
- Are you carrying a legal quantity?
- Do you know their generic names in case you need to replace them?
- Do you have suitable cover for your medications in your travel insurance?
Travelling with medical devices
A medical device is defined by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as a device used on humans to provide therapeutic benefits or to measure or monitor bodily functions. Medical devices can range from bandages and tongue depressors to catheters, blood pressure monitors, prostheses and syringes.
Travelling with medical devices can lead to problems if you aren’t prepared. Here are some ways to avoid complications while travelling.
- Make sure any electrical devices you are taking have the appropriate adaptors for the countries you are visiting.
- Be prepared for your artificial hip, pacemaker or other implants to trigger airport screening devices and accept that your wheelchair or prosthesis may be subject to additional scrutiny.
- Declare any syringes to customs and to your airline and have a doctor’s letter confirming they are for your legal personal use.
- As with medication, keep all medical devices in their original packaging and put them in your carry-on luggage.
What does customs clearance mean?
Drugs that can be legally obtained on prescription in Australia might be considered illegal in some other countries. For this reason, before taking medication to another country, you’ll need to obtain what is known as a customs clearance from that country’s embassy, consulate or high commission.
This customs clearance is a written approval for the drugs to enter the country and it applies to controlled drugs and drugs of addiction such as strong painkillers or medicines containing codeine. Furthermore, you’ll need a customs clearance for every country you are stopping in on your way to your destination, so make sure you have the relevant documentation before you leave.
Q: Are my prescription medicines subject to the liquids, aerosols and gels restrictions when I travel?
- A: No, prescription medicines and medical devices are exempt from this restriction, along with any required storage or temperature-regulating containers.
Q: What kinds of medications are exempt from the liquids, aerosols and gels restrictions?
- A: Essential prescribed medicines such as angina spray, insulin, clotting factor, contact lens solution and essential non-prescription medicines like cough syrup and medicine for children travelling with you.
Q: What is considered a "reasonable amount" of non-prescription medicines?
- A: This is up to you, but airport security and customs will have the final say.
Q: Will I be subject to security screening if I am in a wheelchair?
- A: Yes. Your wheelchair may be tested for explosive residue using a special wand. You may also be frisked, although you have the right to request this be done in private.
Q: What happens if I have a medical device such as a pacemaker that could be adversely affected by security screening?
- A: You should let security officers know of the medical device, so that they can make alternative screening arrangements.
Q: I use an inhaler for my asthma. Can I take it onboard the aircraft?
- A: Yes, inhalers are permitted, although spare canisters should be packed in your check-in luggage.
Q: What about if I need to travel with a hypodermic needle?
- A: This is allowed as long as you have a doctor’s authorisation and declare it to airport security and cabin crew on board the aircraft.
Helpful links for travellers
For further information on travelling with medication and medical devices, visit the following links:
- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT offer travel advice for countries around the world.
- The Department of Human Services. Provides medicare guidelines for travelling with PBS medicines.
- Smartraveller. guidelines for travelling with prescription medicines
- Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection. Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection provide guides for to Australian arrivals and departures in regards to medications.
Travelling with medication may seem complicated and fraught with uncertainties, but it can be a relatively straightforward and painless process if you plan ahead and know the regulations both in Australia and overseas.
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