Depending on where you're traveling and what stage of the journey you're in, your medicines, vitamins and other nutritional supplements may fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or comparable government agencies at your destination. While sorting through the regulations from multiple agencies can be puzzling, in most cases the actual process of flying with vitamins, supplements or medications is pretty straightforward.
Whom Should I Listen To?
Which agency's regulations should you pay attention to? Most of the rules concerning prescription medication, vitamins and supplements dovetail surprisingly well with a collection of common-sense guidelines. But if you're trying to decide which agency to consult for more information, it helps to think of it this way:
- The TSA is in charge of your trip through the airport security checkpoints. When traveling through an airport, you're also subject to the laws of its state regarding prescription medication labels.
- Any time you travel internationally, the FDA and CBP are in charge of regulations concerning your return trip to the United States. (They're also in charge if you're visiting the U.S. from abroad.)
- And if you travel from the U.S. to another country, that country's agencies and policies will determine the rules at its own border — and some countries do have very different rules about medication than the U.S. Start your research process with the U.S. Department of State's country information pages, and, if necessary, consult your destination country's embassy for further information about local regulations.
General Guidelines for Traveling With Medication
Even though several different agencies have jurisdiction over you and your luggage throughout the course of your journey, the various regulations do dovetail fairly nicely — even if they're also a little vague.
The ideal way of traveling with your meds or supplements — also known as the common ground where all those regulations meet — is to carry the pills in the original container with the doctor's instructions printed on the bottle, along with a valid prescription or doctor's note explaining why you need those medications.
If you don't have the original container for your pills — or if you have so many prescriptions that carrying all the pills in their original containers simply isn't practical — make sure you have the prescription itself or doctor's note.
Traveling with too much medication is a good way to be flagged for further screening, and you might even have the excess taken away. In general, the FDA recommends that visitors to the U.S. carry no more than a 90-day supply, which is also good advice if you're traveling abroad — but again, check with the destination country's embassy to verify any local versions of this regulation.
Bringing New Medication Back Home
What if you've traveled abroad to buy medication or are bringing leftover prescription medication back with you? In both cases, that "personal import" is subject to FDA guidelines, so you should have a valid prescription or doctor's note with you. Most of the time, you won't be asked about reasonable quantities of pills, but if it does come up in your screening, having the appropriate documentation can save you a lot of trouble.
Heads-up: One quirk of the FDA guidelines is that if a medication isn't approved by the FDA, you're not supposed to import it into the U.S. But if the medication is something that you need for the treatment of a serious condition, and there is no reasonable alternative available in the U.S., you may be entitled to an exemption under the FDA's Personal Importation Policy.
Read more: 15 Ways to Stay Healthy on Vacation
TSA Rules for Medication in Your Carry-On
Before you can get your medication or vitamins on a plane, you'll have to go through at least one TSA checkpoint. The TSA rules for medications are reasonably clear:
- You can carry pills or solid medication in unlimited quantities, in either checked or carry-on luggage, as long as they're screened.
- Screening is usually done by X-ray; if you don't want your medications X-rayed, request a hand inspection before they go into the X-ray tunnel.
What about liquid medication? You can carry liquid medications in excess of the usual "3-1-1" liquids allowance, but you must declare said medications at the beginning of the screening process, and you might be asked to open the container as part of the extra screening that liquid medication will receive.
The TSA is also clear about not requiring you to have your pills in their original prescription bottles, but they also warn that you're subject to individual state laws about medication labeling. So the safest option is always to keep your medications — and supplements — in their original bottles or, if that isn't possible, carry a copy of your prescription or a doctor's note explaining what the medication is and why you need it.
You're welcome to place medication in your checked luggage, too, but the TSA recommends keeping medication in your carry-on so you have easy access to it as needed. That might also be code for, "So you'll still have it if your checked bags are lost or delayed."
What About Vitamins and Supplements?
The rules are more lax — and also more vague — when it comes to traveling with vitamins, supplements and nonprescription (over-the-counter) medications. The TSA simply says that you're welcome to pack vitamins and supplements in either your checked or carry-on bags, although common sense would dictate that any liquid vitamins must fall within the "3-1-1" liquids limit, and any supplements that might conceivably be mistaken for prescription medications or contraband should stay in their original containers to avoid confusion.
The CBP — it has jurisdiction when you come into the country — defers to the FDA as having jurisdiction over the "import" of over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs and supplements. The FDA, meanwhile, says that in general it won't object to personal import of such, as long as the substances remain in your possession or in your luggage, and as long as the amount being carried is "an amount reasonably considered for personal use."
Read more: The 12 Most Overrated Supplements
Extra Support During Your Trip
Most agencies are quick to assert that the final decision of what does or doesn't make it through a screening checkpoint rests with the agents on hand. If you're concerned about getting your medications or vitamins through a security screening checkpoint, it's a good idea to print a copy of the relevant regulations and bring them with you, just to forestall any confusion.
If you're concerned about getting through TSA checkpoints with medications or medically necessary equipment, you also have the option of calling the "TSA Cares" passenger support line at least 72 hours ahead of your travel with any questions about screening policies, and you can request a passenger support specialist to help you out at the airport.