Beware When Traveling Abroad With Medications

Filed Under: Advice, Security/TSA

I recently came across a post from a blogger (Free Travel Guys) who had his Global Entry revoked, apparently for carrying expired Xanax and Ambien with him, which was discovered by a Customs and Border Protection dog. Based on the blogger’s account, it sounds like the agent was unprofessional and probably abused his discretion.

(Side note: The dog, on the other hand, was just doing his job. I have such a hard time resisting the urge to pet detection dogs and service dogs, but I know they have work to do!)

Keep in mind that if you have your Global Entry revoked, it is difficult to have it reinstated, and there have been other accounts of people endangering their Global Entry status for such lapses as failing to declare food on their customs declaration form.

This also reminded me of a story from a couple years ago about an American executive who moved to Japan to work for Toyota and was arrested for mailing prescription oxycodone to herself.

I noticed that the blogger whose Global Entry was apparently revoked for carrying expired meds mentioned that on his return trip he passed through Abu Dhabi, which raised a red flag for me.

Xanax and Ambien are both controlled substances. I sometimes travel with Xanax, which I use a couple times a month for insomnia. But I know that I cannot take it when I go to the United Arab Emirates, because individuals are not allowed to bring Xanax to the country for personal use without jumping through some serious hoops (i.e. carrying a notarized prescription and an authenticated permit from your state’s health authority).

The UAE Embassy has more information on prohibited medications (which include narcotics, psychotropics, and others). These rules also apply for passengers merely transiting the UAE, so even a 2-hour layover at Dubai International will trigger them.

(Incidentally, poppy seeds are also banned in the UAE, so don’t buy a poppy bagel at your departure airport and forget to eat it before you land in Dubai. On second thought, it’s probably best to avoid poppy seeds altogether, since they seem to always have a way of getting stuck in your teeth before a big meeting or a hot date.)

So on some level, the CBP agent in this case might’ve actually done the above-mentioned blogger a favor, because if an inspector in Abu Dhabi had discovered the Xanax, he might’ve been in more serious trouble.

The moral of the story? Remember when you travel to always keep your medication in its original prescription bottle, and to check the local laws of the places you’re traveling to, especially regarding controlled substances.

And, I guess, in case you encounter an overzealous CBP agent, don’t bring anything that’s past its expiration date.

  1. Probably also wise not to confront an agent head-on. An authority in the wrong very seldom admits his/her wrongdoing, instead use his/her power to push it forward.

  2. When I travel with my Blood pressure meds, I still bring the package info with me when I travel in my carry on, just in case. That way they cannot question it [hopefully].

  3. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue!!! I really wish it was mentioned more. After a gazillion blogger posts about tea at the Burj al Arab, I had never seen a reference to the UAE drug laws. Fortunately I saw a reference in a guide book and I did not bring my xanax with me, which I also use for insomnia/jet lag.
    Heading to Russia in a couple of weeks, does anyone know of concerns there for legal medications?
    Really horrendous what happened to the blogger with the “expired” medications.

  4. according to the document you linked to, sertraline needs the prescription, a certificate from the health authority in the country of departure, and the UAE.

    What a load of hassle.

  5. Thailand for example requires you to have a prescription from both your home country and from a doctor in Thailand if you are bringing meds into the Kingdom.

  6. My husband takes sertraline and I was worried about what would happen when we went to the UAE as it’s not something he can stop taking. Didn’t have a single issue at all, nor with my Ambien. The UAE is one of those cases of there being a HUGE difference between what the law says and what they actually enforce. Please don’t think that the story above is common, it’s most definitely the outlier and not what normally happens.

  7. Couple of things. I am aware of a couple of people that were arrested entering Qatar for carrying prescription medication, this involved being held for 4 days in an immigration centre until they were bailed. The simple thing to do is to do your research online and check everything. I don’t routinely carry medication with me as I tend to buy it in country, however for prescriptions such as allergy medication and suchlike, I always carry a prescription note.

    If you are travelling abroad for work and they issue you a travel medication kit and a sterile needle kit, you should always get a notorised letter from the travel clinic who issued it to you to indicate why you are carrying it and for what purpose. Certain countries in West Africa will kick up a fuss if you fail to comply.

    Unfortunately ignorance isn’t an excuse here folks, if you’re lucky enough to be travelling outside of your own country, you should be prudent enough to do your research.

  8. What a load of BS that now we have to worry about what meds we’ve got, in addition to all the other hassles associated with travel. Some countries (and some security officers) just take life too seriously.

  9. I travel frequently in SA and Europe with prescription prefilled syringes. I always carry copies of the original prescriptions and a doctor’s explanatory note (in english and Spanish). For places like Colombia and the US these documents are frequently needed.

  10. “Thailand for example requires you to have a prescription from both your home country and from a doctor in Thailand if you are bringing meds into the Kingdom.”

    How ironic that Thailand gives a rats tail. When you buy meds online, half the time they come postmarked from Thailand.

  11. @danny unless they changed something that was most certainly not my experience with thailand. I had meds and declared it because i was soo worried and they could have cared less. Now this wasn’t a controlled substance though.

  12. I remember holding my breath as my bag went through security upon entering Dubai because I had a couple prescriptions with me (though nothing addictive.) I did have a letter from my doctor and they were each in their original bottle, just in case. The guards didn’t even look in the bag even though it went thru the x-ray machine. But my travel companion had a horrendous headache and we had to take a taxi to a pharmacy in order to purchase the equivalent of an Excederin. Interesting.

  13. My husband had also experienced questioned about the medicines he brought for local travel. He was asked for the medical certificate but not brought it. Fortunately, because he only has this inhaler for his asthma, they did consider it. From that experience, we had realize that even local flights only, proper and legal documents about medicines should be carried always, wherever place you are going to be. Thanks for this share also, this will help eventually some other travelers about carrying their own prescriptions.

  14. Xanax is a widely abused drug and often resold on the street. I think this should be factored in. Some people may have a prescription run out and they buy it off the street because they cant get more and put it in the bottle and pretend its leftover from prior prescriptions.

  15. Always carry a doctor’s business card with you
    and carry the labeled prescription bottles.
    No daily pill containers !

    Finally bear your passport , not photocopies , at all times

  16. Believe there has to be some profiling applied in these instances and frequency and pattern of travel may have factored into the decision. If your Xanax is expired do you really need to be traveling with it?

    I would hate to think people would leave their meds at home because they’re afraid of an issue with re-entry.

  17. @RF

    I can’t answer your question about declaring food but I can tell you that they always ask in my interviews and the only time I’ve had any issues with CBP was when I forgot about a half-eaten ham sandwich in my backpack left over from the airport in Rome. It was confiscated.

  18. OP here. Expired medications are just as effective. In fact, many people use them beyond their expiration dates because they can’t afford new ones. My Xanax was expired because as I mentioned, I had not realized it and it was a simple oversight. At the time, I took the agent at his word because it never crossed my mind that an expired RX was illegal in the U.S. (it isn’t), so I disposed of the Xanax before arriving to the UAE. I did not dispose of the Ambien. Had no issues there. Agreed that you should find out local laws before arriving to the country. However, I disagree that by being abusive and not knowing actual regulations CBP agent did me a favor. An agent who states incorrect facts and abuses authority is never a good thing.

  19. UAE has tons of restrictions on medications, many of which are OTC in the US. I think pseudofed is, yet I was able to purchase at the airport.

  20. What about nutritional and herbal supplements like fish oil, turmeric extract, probiotics etc.? Anyone know of restrictions on these in certain countries?

  21. And don’t take your travel doctor’s word for anything. My SO has ADD and used to be on prescription Adderall. Thailand does not allow amphetamines for personal use for any reason, prescription or not. The travel clinic doctor was like, “Pff, just bring it in the original packaging”. Uh, no thanks, don’t want to spend time in a Thai prison. Unfortunately, this meant my SO had to be off meds for the time we were in Thailand.

    TLDR: don’t assume your home country’s attitude about a medication is the same as the country you are visiting.

  22. Charlie macmillan.

    Thank god idiots like you don’t run countries (obviously USA is an exception with that orange thing you have waddling around).
    Just because half of the States is hooked on prescription pain killers, doesnt mean other countries want to make it easy for prescription meds to be distributed amongst its citizens

  23. Traveled to AUH and DXB last you to/from the Maldives. Saw a tip on medication protocols on Trip Advisor and went to the appropriate UAE government website. I sent a note to the health ministry with a couple of questions regarding my medication and received a response in just a few hours. I had to get a notarized copy of my prescription, a note from my doctor and carry the drugs in their original container. Had absolutely no issue – in fact, nobody even asked for the documents.

    As someone mentioned earlier up thread – it is your responsibility as a traveler to understand and regulations/laws regarding the country you are visiting.

  24. As a doctor I always have a bag full of medications with me when I travel abroad to avoid having to look for a doctor etc. In this bag I have medications for the most comum problems a tourist can expect in that country like medications for gastric diseases, antibiotics, analgesics etc. Never got a prescription because I am a doctor. Would they accept this as a reason for not having the prescription?

  25. There are no requirements whatsoever on us customs website for medication to be current in expiration date.
    Expiration dates mean nothing
    I work in a pharmacy and These are only suggested dates so We protect ourselves from liability
    It does not mean the medication stops working past expiry dates !!!
    Stupid excuse the agent gave you

    My advice to all is to not travel with any medications that you can’t live without because sadly these customs agents probably can’t tell the difference between a seizure and a opiate , they probably only have a high school degree and they are known to abuse power and treat you like crap if they don’t like you

  26. @everyone: This blog is not a place to get advice on drug laws. STOP ASKING.
    Please don’t rely on advice here as the authorities won’t.

    BTW, it’s legal to carry a kilo of pot into Singapore as long as you declare it at Customs, and you don’t mind falling 7 feet with a rope around your neck.

    Soothing advice here can only get you into trouble. There may be a criminal defense lawyer among the responders, but I doubt they handle both state and federal cases, as well as having an understanding of foreign drug laws.

  27. Aside the ad hominem comments here, key is research. It is a fact the OTC meds in one country are controlled in others. It works both ways as I recently discovered in Spain when my UK presciption only BP med was both OTC and 1/8th the price of our socialised heathcare system.

    Jet lag wise, Melatonin seems to be controlled/banned sporadically around the world, but OTC in the US. The world starts at your own country’s border.

  28. I take Xanax when I fly and had the same questions and was a bit concerned about a trip to Dubai. I had a note from my doctor signed and had the prescription in its original bottle, but didn’t get the prescription notarized by the embassy of UAE in the USA (which is what I was told to do ) .The consulate made it close to impossible to comply with their own rules so ultimately what I took sufficed and i wasn’t even questioned about the medicine and everything was okay.

    Millions of people transit through and visit Dubai and UAE all the time and many take medication and the authorities know this obviously but you do need to be careful and some are totally illegal like codeine.

    Dubai was amazing but one thing I do want to comment on is the fact that drinking alcohol, being in a taxi w/ a member of the opposite sex who you are not married to and many things we would consder normal are technically illegal in Dubai. Drinking alcohol actually requires a drinking permit which you cannot even apply for if you wanted to either. The bottom line is that the UAE can be a dangerous place to visit because many common things that are “tolerated” are still Illegal there, and there are too many grey areas and you can get into serious trouble and made an example of for doing any of them for any reason, at any time.

    If you piss off a local or the authorities want to make an example of you you are in HUGE trouble and you are totally defenseless. Usually you will be okay if you don’t act stupid and are respectful but you always run the risk of having the authorities come down on you and pay severe penalties for very common things. The country wants to promote family values for locals but also a crazy party atmosphere for tourists and there is a bit of a clash . Unfortunately the ones who pay the price are tourists. Women have also been raped there and have gone to jail in Dubai. For these reasons I would be careful and exercise caution going there.

  29. Fascism on parade. The harm to you in not taking the medications prescribed by your physician because of stories on blogs of someone “being put in detention” for bringing medication are enough to make me want a xanax myself.

    Get it: your doc prescribed the medications for a good damned reason. Take it AS PREsCRIBED, people. Do not skip doses. Do not fear stories of Stasi agents locking you up for your blood pressure meds. Be sensible: If you occasionally take a xanax, benzo, Vicodin or anti-anxiety med, bring some and seal em tight. If you need it every day, bring it in the bottle with your Rx number and name.

    Don’t bring pot. Don’t bring drugs you’re not prescribed. Don’t bring quantities of drugs above what you need for your trip. If they take your meds, go see a doctor and get something to use. Then don’t go back to cruddy country. That’s about all that’s likely to happen.

    Familiarize yourself with your meds. You should know all this anyway— what happens when you foolishly drop two white round pills— you need to know the codes on each tablet. Know what they do, what they’re prescribed for. No one is going to be involved in an international incident because they have two weeks’ worth of sleep meds. Put this in perspective. Those dogs and bag searches are after wholesale mules.

    But DON’T let these stories override your physician!

  30. @traderjoe:
    You said:
    Get it: your doc prescribed the medications for a good damned reason. Take it AS PREsCRIBED, people. Do not skip doses. Do not fear stories of Stasi agents locking you up for your blood pressure meds. Be sensible: If you occasionally take a xanax, benzo, Vicodin or anti-anxiety med, bring some and seal em tight. If you need it every day, bring it in the bottle with your Rx number and name.

    I’m going to be very firm with you:
    NO, no, and no. Stop giving what sounds like sensible , soothing advice. It cannot be relied upon. This post was not about blood pressure medications. I see what you did there.
    “SENSIBLE” does not enter into the equation.

    If you need xanax , do not travel to the UAE, even if it’s prescribed, unless you jump through ALL the hoops.
    Yes, odds are low you will be stopped. So what?
    Read the penalty for bringing Xanax to The Maldives. The Customs guidance is a little flyer that is not at all clear . It’s a psychotropic drug, which is prohibited , period. The customs flyer suggests prescribed controlled meds need a prescription…while being not at all clear as to whether this applies to Xanax. You could have an attorney call Customs or local attorney in advance, but remember these countries don’t play by the same rules of law as ‘Merca.

    BTW the penalty can be life in prison for smallish quantities. Under 1 gram is 10 years in prison.
    Maldivian law can be applied differently to foreigners. Last time I was there the penalty for a local woman having sex outside of marriage was death by stoning. (It’s a good reason not to use Tinder –which is another story, since I had a bet with a friend he could not meet a local via Tinder from the Sheraton and I lost)
    I’m not saying they would not just kick you out of the country , but why would you go someplace with a med you need if you could end up in prison …and withdrawal. The latter is bad enough. JUST DON’T GO. PLEASE DO NOT THINK YOU ARE GOING TO TALK YOUR WAY OUT OF THE MATTER..

    And yes, DO be worried.

    As to the blogger who had his GE revoked, that becomes a civil matter. How much does he want to spend on a federal criminal defense attorney–about the only people who understand the law….to deal with the matter?
    If it were me, the amount would be quite a bit at $400 / hour as a matter of principle. The government agents all have qualified immunity and lifting your GE status, unless they give you a beating along with it, doesn’t come close to breaching the QE.

  31. Etihad actually had poopy seed bagels in their first class departures lounge at Heathrow when I flew the.

    Better watch out those poppy seeds don’t fall into your pockets! 😉 (I guess most customs officials would apply some common sense in a case like that, but YMMV.)

  32. Good reminder to be careful when travelling with meds due to different laws possibly applying between countries.
    Thanks Alastair Majury

  33. All right..I love these armchair experts who speak as it they were awarded Rhodes Scholarships for their dissertations on benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and Rhohypnol..Lets get a few things straight first..Rohypnol is not a benzodiazepine…Flunitrazepam is classed as a nitro-benzodiazepine. It is the fluorinated N-methyl derivative of nitrazepam. Other nitro-benzodiazepines include nitrazepam (the parent compound), nimetazepam (methylamino derivative) and clonazepam (2ʹ-chlorinated derivative). The hydrogen bonding gives this molecule a very durable structure which grants it a half life of 18-26 hours… Other nitro-benzodiazepines include nitrazepam (the parent compound), nimetazepam (methylamino derivative) and clonazepam ..

    Now lots talk about Xanax…And the ridiculous concept of expired medications..Any chemist knows that if a compound is kept in a cool, dark, dry environment then the molecules that make up the active ingredient in the medication are not going to break down to even a fraction of the degree that a medication, that is stored in a clear glass bottle and sits on a sunny window sill over the kitchen sink where light, humidity, and heat are almost constantly in a steady supply…Just because the expiration date may have past it’s date does not mean the medications looked down at the expiration date on the label and all said “0op’s, it is time for us to die.!!”..How many times have any of us eaten a food item that was a day or two past the ‘sell by’ date..Yet here we all are, alive and gorgeous… For he record, I take 9 medications daily for everything from hypertension to insomnia, to HIV..I am also a Registered nurse so I do agree that the misuse and abuse of certain meds can really ruin my night..I hate pumping stomachs.!! Outlawing a medicine because it has a high potential for abuse and dependency is not as important as being able to provide people suffering the horrible pains of stomach or Pancreatic Cancers with a way to relieve their suffering. Used in a judicious, compassionate, and closely supervised, CLINICAL area it is the Skelton key that opens the door and gives them the tools and blessing to live free from the pain for as long as they continue to live,…. as have those drugs, used in a judicious, supervised, CLINICAL area..

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