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Foreign Pharmacies - Buying Drugs from Canada and Mexico

Crossing the Border to Buy Medications

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Updated June 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Foreign Pharmacies - Buying Drugs from Canada and Mexico

More Americans Are Buying Drugs from Foreign Pharmacies.

Kuriputosu/iStockphoto

Due to the high price of prescription drugs, many Americans buy their medications from foreign pharmacies by crossing the border into Canada and Mexico, or when they travel to another foreign country. Many prescription medications are less expensive in foreign countries, and some medications that require a prescription in the U.S. are available over-the-counter in other countries.

Why Are Prescription Drug Prices Lower in Other Countries?

Some foreign governments, such as those in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, control the maximum amount that can be charged for prescription medications, which holds down drug prices.

The U.S. government does not control prices for prescription medications and allows drug companies to compete openly. In the U.S., the costs of researching, developing, and advertising new brand name medications are passed to customers as part of a medication’s price.

Additionally, since people in the U.S. are more likely to sue than people in other countries, some of the cost of prescription medications in the U.S. is due to lawsuits against drug companies.

Although brand-name medications may be 25% to 50% less expensive in some foreign countries, generic drugs are often less expensive in the U.S. This is because there is strong competition in the U.S. among companies that make generic drugs.

Are the Drugs I Buy in a Foreign Country Safe?

Medications you buy in a foreign country may be of the same quality as those you buy in the U.S. In fact, your prescription medications may have been manufactured in the U.S. Moreover, some medications sold in this country have been made in American-owned factories located in other countries.

However, you cannot tell if a drug is safe just by looking at it. If the medication is counterfeit, has a different strength, has not been stored properly, or is not labeled correctly, you are at risk of serious health problems.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned that drugs you buy outside the U.S. may present the following health risks:

  • Some imported medications may have been made using unsafe procedures.
  • Some imported medications are fake.
  • Some imported medications may not have been checked for safety or effectiveness.
  • Some imported medications may be addictive or use dangerous ingredients.
  • An imported medication may not have information for treating side effects.
  • The medication’s label, instructions, and list of possible side effects may be in a language you do not understand.
  • The label of some imported medications may make claims or suggest uses that have not been approved.
  • Some imported medications are not safe when taken without adequate medical supervision.

Can I Bring Prescription Drugs I Buy in a Foreign Country into the U.S.?

The FDA regulates prescription drugs made in the U.S. Under federal law it is illegal for anyone except a drug manufacturer to import prescription drugs into the U.S.

These laws were established to protect consumers and to make sure that the only medications available in the U.S. have been produced by drug companies approved by the FDA and at locations inspected by the government.

Additionally, the FDA does not allow the re-importation of medications. For example, if a drug company makes an FDA-approved prescription drug and sends that drug to a pharmacy in Canada, it is against the law for you to buy that drug in Canada and bring it back into the U.S.

Does the FDA Always Enforce the Drug Importation Laws?

The FDA does not always enforce regulations for importing prescription drugs and has issued guidelines entitled Coverage of Personal Importations. This policy is not a law or a regulation, but serves as a guide for FDA personnel and, at their discretion, U.S. Customs agents at U.S. borders.

Under these guidelines, the FDA may allow an individual entering the U.S. to import a 90-day supply of an unapproved drug if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The intended use of the medication is for a serious condition for which effective treatment may not be available in the U.S.
  2. The medication will not be sold by the person bringing the medication into the U.S.
  3. The medication is considered not to represent an unreasonable risk.
  4. The individual seeking to bring the medication into the U.S. affirms in writing that the drug is for the his or her own use and provides the name and address of the doctor licensed in the U.S. responsible for his or her treatment with the medication; or, the individual provides evidence that the medication is for the continuation of a treatment begun in a foreign country.

Some Tips from Dr. Mike:

  • If you choose to buy medications in a foreign country, do some research before you go. Learn how to identify a properly licensed pharmacy in the country you visit.
  • Be aware of the FDA’s drug importation guidelines.
  • Avoid buying medications in countries that do not carefully regulate pharmacies. For example, the medication regulations are much stronger in Canada than in Mexico.
  • Do not buy medications from street vendors.
  • Before buying medications in a foreign country, make sure you have explored your cost saving options at home. For example, your doctor may be able to switch you to a generic medication, which may be cheaper to buy in the U.S.

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