Carrying over-the-counter medicines in our carry-on bags in flight is pretty common. Most of us may carry common medicines for fever, cold, etc. Sometimes, we may also carry some medication that were prescribed by a doctor for emergency. What some of us may not realize is that there are strict rules for importing medications into US, even for personal use.
Recently, one of the users shared their experience carrying medicines into US and going through process at US Port of Entry (POE) on social media. The CBP officer during customs check said that the user’s visa could be revoked, or the user could be arrested as the user was not carrying prescription. If you fail to follow US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for importing medicines into US, the consequences could be really bad. In this article, we will cover all the details on carrying medicines into US, either for yourself, for your family or friends.
To understand more context, let’s first review a real experience faced by one of the users.
Background – User Experience at POE with US Customs
The user was carrying medicines given by employer to give to his mother (over 500 tablets) and also some for friends (Diabetes Medicines). Due to COVID-19, some are stuck in US and the user was trying to do a favor by carrying medicines to them. User was carrying personal laptop, medicines in his carry-on bag. Three officers were at the checking counter and they got hold of him. Below is the summary of the experience shared by user on social media.
- CBP Officers : Sir, before we open, everything here belongs to you and you packed it yourself ?
- User : Yes. Wait, you meant I’m not carrying others luggage right sir?
- CBP Officer.: Yes and also you are not carrying anything for your friends into USA ?
- User : There are some medicines for my friend’s mother and friend other than that , all mine sir
- They cut open my friend’s mother’s tablets box. He said these are RX written on them. RX means that you need to have prescription to buy them. I did not carry any prescription.
- CBP Officer: This is illegal, we can arrest you for these medicines.
- User: Sir, in this COVID-19 and travel ban situations people are suffering for lack of medicines, so I am trying to be been little helpful for my friends and their parents, if you want you can throw them and it is totally understandable. I have no intention to ruin my USA status coming all the way sir.
- CBP Officer took passport, checked everything, looked at my history, asked for some questions related to previous history and verified by asking questions.
- User : Answered everything truthfully including DUI on record.
- CBP Officer: Thank you for your honesty sir. We have noted down now and since it’s your first time, we are allowing you…but next time even if we find one tab without prescription…your visa will be revoked
Now that you know what exactly happened and have some context, let’s dive into guidance given by FDA, CBP and TSA rules for carrying medicines into US.
CBP Guidance for Carrying Medicines into US
As per US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) medication travel guidelines , below are the guidelines for carrying medications into US.
- All medication that is prescribed by doctor should be carried in their original containers with doctor prescription printed on the container.
- If the medicines are not in original boxes with prescription, you need to carry separate letter from Doctor and the prescription of the same. It should be in English.
- You can only carry no more than 90 days of medicines
- You MUST carry valid doctor prescription or doctor note for all medicines.
- If you are carrying any medical devices for your health, they also need doctor prescription and letter
- US FDA regulates all the medications imported into US and you should check their website or call them.
- Also, if you are carrying any specialized medical devices that have sharp objects like needles or oxygen tanks, you need to contact the TSA regarding their requirements and get that clarified.
- If some of the medicines you carry are like cough medicines, sleeping pills, antidepressants, stimulants, etc. there is a chance for these kinds of medicines to have potentially addictive drugs or some narcotic substances. In such cases, you need to declare all such medications to the CBP officials and they need to be in original containers.
- Also, some states have restrictions on some types of substances and can violate the rules. If in doubt, write to the US CBP and FDA and get clarification before you carry anything.
- You can check CBP Prohibited and Restricted Items web page under Medication for official info
Now, let’s look at the US FDA guidance for carrying medicines into US.
FDA Guidance on carrying medicines to US
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the main authority governing the import of medicines into US. As per FDA, their general view is that FDA cannot assure people that drugs manufactured in other countries are safe or effective. So, they generally do not approve import of medicines, unless they fall under some exceptions. As per FDA tips on Traveling with medicines, below are some of the general guidelines given by them.
General Rules for Importing Medicines into US by FDA
- You must have valid prescription from Doctor or letter from Doctor written in English that you can carry medicines to US.
- The medicines should in the original container with printed doctors’ instructions on bottle or tablets. If there is no such printed label of prescription on the container, there needs to be a copy of prescription or doctor letter that explains the condition and why are given such mediation.
- You can only get medicines for your personal use during your stay in US
- You can only get medicines for with prescription for up to 90 days.
- If you are staying in US for more than 90 days, then you can get them by Mail or Courier like FedEx, UPS, etc.
- If you plan to ship your medicines, you need to submit documentation of Doctor prescription in English, Copy of your Visa, Letter from Doctor invoice, Invoice and other supporting info as needed.
Exceptions for Importing Medicines for Personal Use
In general, FDA does not allow importing of medicines for personal use in US as they cannot really evaluate the same for safety. Below are some exceptions allowed by them for importing of drugs or medicines for personal use.
- The medicine or drug is to treat a serious condition and no effective treatment option is available in US
- The medicine does not provide serious health risk.
- There is no promotion or marketing done by the individual for the medicine to US residents.
- You are signing and verifying that it is only for your personal use
- The medicine was given by your doctor as a continuation of treatment that was started when you were outside of US. Also, there needs to be details of US doctor, who would supervise your condition when using the medicine. The letter should be written to CBP officer or the shipping company who acts as broker.
- You are getting medicines only for up to 3 months.
- Check Official Personal Importation Policy (PIP) given by FDA
TSA Guidance on carrying medicines to & in US
Usually, CBP is the main division that works with international flights arrivals and TSA would come into picture if you are traveling in domestic flights in US after you arrive at Port of entry. The rules to carry medicines by TSA are also pretty similar to what is given by CBP like you need to carry prescription all the time, etc. CBP and FDA are the agencies that are the gatekeepers for safe import and usage of drugs. You can check TSA Travel tips – Medicines Guidance
Can I carry prescription medication for someone else to US?
Many of us would come across this situation, where our friends ask us to fetch medicines on their behalf into US. Sometimes, you may need to bring medication for your parents, mother-in-law or father-in-law. Now, there is no clear guidance given by FDA or CBP that tells that you can carry medicines for someone else, be it your friends or immediate family.
The official guidance tells that you can only carry medicines for personal use. It means that medicines have to be used by the person carrying the medicines. So, this is a grey area and very subjective. The rule of thumb is that you should not carry medicines for anyone else other than yourself, even if it is for immediate family. This is to avoid issues for yourself at US port of entry.
Ship Medicines, instead of carrying for others
The CBP & FDA guidelines are clear that you can import medicines for personal use, if they qualify and along with supporting documentation. So, technically, anyone like your Father, Mother, Friends or in-laws for that matter… they all can request for importing medicines directly using Mail or Courier like Fedex or UPS on their name. It is the best approach and avoids all the legal issues. You should use this route, if you want medicines in US. You can check FedEx Guidelines for Importing Medicines to US
Now that we have looked at the entire guidance by all the three agencies and major question, let’s look at some common FAQs
You may have got away in the past, but not getting caught is not an excuse for doing wrong thing again. You should only carry medicines for yourself and with proper prescription. Do not risk anything, where it is not needed. It may cost you less than $100 USD, why take risk and ruin your peace of mind by doing something that is not clear from legal standpoint.
You should carry all your medicines in your carry-on luggage. You should have them along with you. You should NOT place your medicines in check-in bags. It can create issues and you may face delays and may need additional paperwork to get them, if they have medicines.
If the medicine you are carrying has RX on it like in below image, then you need to have prescription for sure. It is an international standard for medicines to have RX printed on the medicine bottle or box.
In general, you should always check, if the medicine has RX mark on it or not. If there is no RX mark, then you may carry them. But, always carry the invoice where you bought it, so that if there are any issues, then you may show the proof that you got them over the counter. There may be some restrictions as some drugs in other countries can have substances that are prohibited in US.
This is slightly tricky as some cough medicines have some prohibited substances that are not allowed in US. You should check with FDA or CBP. It can be risky to carry without proper prescription.
ICE has given a list of drugs by category that are allowed and that require special authorization. You can check ICE HSC/ US CBP Medications List
Have you brought medicines into US ? What was your experience at CBP ? Share your thoughts, experiences.