One of the more important items on the pre-departure checklist for expats or travelers headed to Germany concerns any prescription drugs they may require during an extended stay. Those who need certain medications can bring their own prescription drugs with them when they travel to Germany — in their carry-on or checked luggage. That’s not a problem. The hassles only begin when you want or need to “import” your own prescription drugs to Germany from the U.S. or some other country. I have some personal experience with the complications that can arise when you have your own medications sent to you in Germany by a friend, spouse, relative or anyone outside Germany. You may also want to do this, since your U.S. prescription plan may not cover you in Germany, but it is fraught with peril.
First, let’s talk about how you can avoid such complications and related hassles up front. (In other words, what I should have done, but didn’t.) Then I’ll tell you what happens if you don’t follow this advice!
Step 1: Before you depart for Germany, determine which prescription medications you will need in Europe and take at least a month’s supply with you. (A 90-day supply is even better. Most prescription plans will allow you to get a “vacation” supply for 90 days — with pre-approval.) Keep in mind that you can’t buy even aspirin or cold medicine over the counter in Germany! All drugs, including aspirin (a German invention) or any non-prescription meds, must be bought at a pharmacy (Apotheke) from a pharmacist (Apotheker/Apothekerin). However, many medications (Rx and OTC) are cheaper to buy in Germany than in the U.S.
Step 2: Keep your prescription meds in their original containers and bring them with you, either as carry-on items or in your checked baggage. Going through German customs is usually a non-issue. After claiming your bags, just follow the green (nothing to declare) line to the exit. If you happen to get spot-checked, your labeled prescription drugs are perfectly legal.
Step 3: Well before your supply of meds is due to run out, go to a German physician or pharmacist to find out what the German equivalents of your drugs are. The names and requirements are often different. (Of my two meds, the German name was identical for one, but very different for the other.) Some German pharmacists will fill a U.S. prescription, but most of the time they will not. In my own case, the Berlin pharmacist sent me to a nearby doctor’s office, which very kindly gave me German prescriptions for my two medications — without charge and without an exam! (An important note: Neither the pharmacist nor the doctor spoke English! The entire matter was conducted auf Deutsch. What threw me: The doctor’s office assistant asked me how many pills I wanted. I later found out that German drugs are dispensed in boxes of 25, 50, or 100, rather than for a month (30 pills), and that it is cheaper to buy in larger quantities.)
Step 4: Learn how things work in Germany when it comes to doctors and medicine. In many ways the German medical system offers certain advantages (lower costs being one) or is just very different from what you may be used to. Many Germans are into homeopathic and herbal medicine, acupuncture and alternative medicine, but they also have good medical specialists and hospitals. Remember the German saying “Andere Länder, andere Sitten.” (“Different lands, different customs” or “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”)
So, what happens if you don’t prepare by following my 4-step plan? My tale of woe has a happy ending, but I don’t recommend it to anyone. Goethe, who said a lot of cool things, expressed it best: “There is nothing worse than ignorance in action.”
About a month or so after my arrival in Germany I noticed my meds were running low. So I asked my wife (who was still in the USA) to send me a 90-day supply via FedEx. She had already done the insurance work, so as per my instructions, she got my two prescriptions filled and sent them off to me via FedEx, properly declared. As we all know, FedEx isn’t cheap, but it’s fast (or so I thought).
My wife told me when she had shipped the package, so I was expecting it in a day or two at the most. But after a week of waiting, I finally called FedEx Germany. My online efforts told me the package had been shipped, but that was all. I had not received any notification from FedEx that there might be a problem, but there obviously was. Only after I contacted them did FedEx bother to inform me that my package was being held in Frankfurt at customs (Zoll) because it contained drugs — my two prescriptions. I soon learned more about German law concerning medicines. Via email, dated Nov. 10, 2007, the FedEx “import broker” sent me two documents. One informed me that “die Einfuhr von Medikamenten durch Privatpersonen ist nach dem Deutschen Arzneimittelgesetz nicht zulässig.” (“The importation of medications by private persons is not allowed under German law pertaining to medicines.”) Furthermore, I would have to contact a pharmacy that was willing to send the FedEx folks a fax confirming that it would be willing to accept my drugs for me, in accordance with customs regulations. The second document was a sample fax for that purpose. And, by the way, I would have to pay a customs duty of about 40 euros ($60 at the time).
At this point I was not certain with whom I was more angry — FedEx or myself. But I had a more immediate problem. I needed to find a nearby pharmacist who was willing to “import” my own drugs for me, as per German law. I’d wager that out of the hundreds of Apotheken in Berlin, there might be one or two that had ever done this weird “import” thing. With the sample fax and my few remaining drugs in hand, I walked down the street to the closest Apotheke, less than 200 meters from my apartment building. It was as good a choice as any, I figured. Here goes nothing!
Herr Schuster (not his real name), the Apotheker in charge, was friendly but not sure what to make of this Ami with his strange request. He definitely was not one of the few Berlin pharmacists who had ever done this “import” thing. He would have to call someone to find out if he could do it. Could I come back later that day?
When I returned after a few hours, the news wasn’t good. He was sorry, but “headquarters” had said no. I pointed out that I really needed to get my prescription drugs, especially the blood pressure medication, since my blood pressure was not being helped at all by this hassle. Taking pity on an ignorant foreigner, Herr Schuster says he’ll make a call to a doctor he knows. When he gets off the phone, he says the doctor is willing to give me a German prescription (Rezept) for the equivalent drugs, and he gives me directions to her office, only a few blocks away.
So off I go, walking briskly in the cool November air, trying to get to the Frau Doktor before the office closed. Naturally, I lost my way. I must have asked four or five people in the neighborhood if they knew where this particular street was. Amazingly, no one knew. To top it all off, after I found it by asking a tourist with a map (!), I caught up with a guy I had asked earlier, walking down the very street in question! I commented to him that he was on the street I had asked about. He sheepishly replied that he didn’t know the street name. Unbelievable.
Anyway, if you know the way, the doctor is only a five-minute walk from my apartment or the Apotheke. I took about 20 minutes, but there I was. “Oh, ja, Herr Flippo. Sie sind da,” said the friendly receptionist in the small waiting room filled with several real patients. She asked how many of each I wanted, and a few minutes later I was on my way back to the Apotheke, prescriptions in hand. This time it was only a five-minute stroll, and not long after that I had my medications. What’s more, now that we had a German prescription, Herr Schuster was willing to carry out my odd fax request for German customs, after all.
But, wait, there’s one more irony here! The sample fax from FedEx states: “Bitte fertigen Sie die o.g. Sendung in unserem Namen Zolltechnisch ab und liefern Sie sie an uns aus.” In plain English that means FedEx should prepare and send the “above mentioned shipment” to the pharmacist in accordance with customs regulations. In other words, since it is illegal for private persons to do this, the shipment must go to the pharmacist. So Herr Schuster kindly sends the fax off to FedEx.
A day or two later, a FedEx guy is at my door with a small package. Inside are my two U.S. prescription bottles with my meds. After all the customs red tape and fuss, FedEx simply sent the package directly to me! I took my package over to show Herr Schuster so he would at least know what had happened. The pharmacist was just as surprised as I was. We had a good laugh about German efficiency, and now I had both my regular German doctor and German pharmacy for the length of my stay in Berlin.