How to Buy Medications From Foreign Pharmacies

What You Should Know

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Americans often wonder whether it's legal to purchase their prescription drugs from a pharmacy in another country, usually Canada or Mexico, and bring them back to the United States.

Their reasoning is simple: There may be real benefits in purchasing drugs outside the United States. For example:

  • The costs of brand-name drugs in many other countries may be substantially lower than they are in the U.S.
  • Some drugs are available in other countries but not in the U.S.
  • Some drugs that require a prescription in the U.S. do not require a prescription in other countries, even Canada and Mexico.

However, there are laws that prohibit "personal importation;" that is, Americans purchasing drugs from Canadian, Mexican or other pharmacies and bringing them into the United States. Many Americans still choose to take the risks such a purchase may create.

Here is what you need to know about buying your prescription drugs from foreign countries.


Understand Personal Importation and Re-importation of Drugs From Other Countries

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Personal importation is the label given by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the act of an American bringing a prescription drug into the United States, whether it is an FDA-approved drug or not, and whether you bring that drug in by person or by mail.

Re-importation addresses drugs that were manufactured in the United States, shipped to another country, then purchased by an American and brought back home.

By American law, personal importation and re-importation of many drugs are illegal.

There are a number of reasons personal importation is illegal. One reason is that the FDA is responsible for making sure the drugs Americans use are safe and effective. When drugs come from outside the country, they may or may not have been approved by the FDA, and they may or may not have been manufactured to the FDA's specifications.

Furthermore, it's difficult to trust that pharmaceutical companies have been entirely truthful when seeking approval for drugs, whether they seek approval in the United States or any other country. Not every country is as stringent as the U.S. in what it requires for approval. We've seen some giant drug failures in past years based on approvals that should not have been made. So, just because a drug has been approved elsewhere, it doesn't mean the FDA will find it safe or effective enough to approve it in the United States.

The reason re-importation is illegal is because the FDA has no control over the chain of custody. Once the drug has been sold outside the United States, there may be no strict documentation about what might have been done with it, whether the conditions were sterile, whether it was maintained at proper temperatures or other aspects of storing, distributing or dispensing.

Therefore, personal importation and re-importation are against the law.

But sometimes the FDA will look the other way. According to, no American has ever been prosecuted for purchasing drugs from an online, foreign pharmacy.


Law vs. Policy - The FDA's Regard for Personal Importation and Reimportation

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While the FDA is very strict about drugs being brought into the United States by organizations that will resell or distribute those drugs, they are less stringent about individuals bringing drugs into the U.S. for their own personal use.

With consistent reminders throughout its literature and website that importation and re-importation on the part of individual citizens is not condoned because it is illegal, the FDA also provides guidelines for when the law may not be enforced.

Those guidelines spell out circumstances under which we can fill prescriptions in other countries and bring them back to the U.S. for personal use. They include:

  • when the drug is not yet approved in the U.S. but is prescribed for a serious condition that does not have an approved equivalent at home
  • the stipulation that the drug will not be sold to someone else by the person who brings it into the U.S.
  • that the amount being imported is no more than a three-month supply for one person's personal use

U.S. Customs imposes additional rules that address how to bring drugs into the United States and how they must be declared if you are bringing them across the border yourself.

Next: How to Deal with U.S. Customs to Bring Drugs Back into the United States

How to Deal with US Customs to Bring Drugs Back Into the United States

U.S Customs and Border Protection at an airport.
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Examining the goods you bring across the border is the responsibility of the U.S Customs and Border Protection. Here is an overview of how they regard drugs you bring across the border, and how to prepare to do so:

  • Make sure you declare any purchase you made in another country. If you don't declare it, and they find it, it can result in penalties.
  • If the package raises suspicion, it will be confiscated and set aside for review. If it is confiscated, the FDA must send you a letter and allow you to make the case for showing that it meets legal requirements. Otherwise, it will be destroyed or returned to its sender (if it was mailed.)
  • Prescription drugs should be stored in their original containers along with a copy of the original prescription.

Find expanded FDA information about bringing drugs back to the U.S.

If you travel to another country and must bring a prescription drug back into the U.S. with you, no matter where it was prescribed, you should be aware of the FDA's travel guidelines.

The FDA also provides rules and guidance on mail shipments, important if you will attempt to purchase drugs from a foreign pharmacy online.


Potential Problems When Purchasing Drugs From Foreign Pharmacies Found Online

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Unless you are careful, there are many problems that may arise from purchasing drugs online. Both your health and your wallet can be affected, whether you make that online purchase from a pharmacy in the United States or any other country. Learn about the problems that can stem from online drug purchases in general.

The FDA also warns that drug names used in other countries may be identical to drug names used in the United States, but the ingredients, including active ingredients, may be different - so much so, that they are not the same drug at all.

Examples of drug name conflicts:

  • In the United States, "Flomax," prescribed for an enlarged prostate, is a brand name for tamsulosin. In Italy, the active ingredient in the product called "Flomax" is morniflumate, an anti-inflammatory drug.
  • Ambyen is sold in Great Britain for abnormal heart rhythms. Ambien sold in the United States is a sleep aid. Getting those two drugs mixed up could have dire consequences.

That means it's important to check the ingredients used to manufacture a drug in addition to the name of the drug if you are purchasing that drug from a pharmacy in another country.

Additional problems may occur when you try to purchase drugs online from a foreign drug distributor or website, such as:

  • Don't forget that you'll have to convert the cost of the drug in the foreign currency to U.S. currency. Many countries, including Canada, also call their currency "dollars," and you could easily get American dollars mixed up with their dollars. Of course, the conversion rates between currencies change every day. Here's a place for you to check currency conversion rates.
  • Shipping charges may be higher since the drugs will come from outside the country. When comparing drug pricing, be sure you weigh the cost of shipping in addition to the cost of the drug to truly get the best deal.
  • Credit card rules and security provisions may not be as stringent. If you purchase from any pharmacy online, whether or not it's located in the United States, be sure to monitor your credit card bills for subsequent fraudulent charges.
  • If the drug you need is a generic, you may find that it's actually less expensive to purchase it in the United States. Check carefully.

Once you are aware of the potential problems and know how to safely and legally purchase drugs online, you may want to compare drug prices to be sure you're making a smart choice by purchasing your drugs from a pharmacy in another country.

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