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Prescriptions In South Korea: What Is Available And How To Ensure You Get The Right Level Of Care

Note: This article assumes a normal state of affairs and cannot predict future developments concerning the COVID-19 coronavirus. As long as the coronavirus crisis continues, always check official government guidance before travelling.

Most prescription medications that are available in the West are available in South Korea, though not necessarily under the same name. You may have to choose between imported and domestic brands. Take your prescription medication from your doctor in your home country, as well as the packaging (if possible), to a Korean doctor or pharmacist. This will make it easier for them to help you. 

When you travel to South Korea, you can take a three-month supply of prescription medication with you. This will cover you for the time it takes to restock from a Korean pharmacist. The Korean Food & Drug Administration recommends having the following ready for inspection:

  • Your passport
  • A recently-issued prescription (for each controlled medicine), indicating dosage and total volume
  • A doctor’s letter specifying the medical condition

You should keep your existing medication in its labelled prescription bottles or boxes. Ultimately, the Korean Customs Service has authority over which medications may or may not be taken into the country. Bear in mind that if a drug is illegal in your own country, then it is almost certainly illegal in South Korea. 

Cannabis is legal in South Korea, purely for medicinal use, for patients with rare or incurable diseases and no other treatment options. It is only legal in the form of specific cannabis-based drugs. At present, these are Canemes, Epidiolex, Marinol and Sativex. Even though these forms of cannabis can be self-medicated in some countries, you will need a doctor’s prescription for them in South Korea. Any cannabis-derived substances not approved by foreign health regulators are banned. 

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Importing cannabis in plant form, or any other form (e.g. marijuana, CBD oil, hemp-derived products), is strictly illegal, even if you have a prescription that is legal in your country of origin. Remember this, as penalties are severe. 

Likewise, importing any drug derived from poppies, coca leaves or alkaloids is illegal. Note that, depending on the brand, this may include sleeping aids and painkillers. You may wish to consult your doctor regarding substitute medicines or sources of local equivalent medicines in South Korea.

If your drug is in any way narcotic, you should submit a written application to the Narcotics Control Division of the Korean KFDA at narcotics@korea.kr before travelling. They will generally respond within 24 hours.

Once you have arrived in South Korea, visit a doctor. They will usually prescribe your medication, and then a pharmacist will dispense it. Very little medication is available over the counter, and even some medications that are available off-the-shelf abroad will require a prescription.

You have three options for getting a prescription for your current medication:

  • Take a copy of your prescription to your doctor
  • Show your doctor a sample bottle, tube or box of your medication
  • Give the doctor the name of your medication

Writing a prescription will require a fee of anywhere between 5,000 won and 25,000 won (£3 and £16). The fees are higher in international and private clinics. If you use the national health insurance scheme, you will pay a relatively low fee. The amount that you will be prescribed will depend on how much you can safely store. 

Your prescription will not repeat automatically. Therefore, every time you want a renewal or a refill, you will have to visit your doctor for a fresh prescription. For certain types of drugs, they will have to conduct a physical examination or other tests.

Pharmacists do not mix their own pills and ointments but dispense them already prepared, in the form in which they have been supplied by the pharmaceutical company. However, they will often give you your medication in individual plastic bags for each dose prescribed by your doctor. These may be labelled with brief instructions, e.g. ‘1/1’ meaning ‘take once a day’ or ‘2/1’ meaning ‘take twice a day’. 

However, medication rarely comes with a proper instructions label, and if it does, then this will be in Korean. Therefore, before you leave the doctor’s office, make sure you clearly understand when, how, and in what dosage you are to take the medication. You should also check whether you need to take it before, during or after meals. It might be wise to write this down while you are with the doctor and to confirm that you have understood correctly. 

You can buy birth control patches and pills over the counter. Antibiotics and hormone-based drugs will require a doctor’s prescription.

You will usually find non-prescription or over-the-counter drugs in pharmacies. However, the South Korean government has recently reclassified 48 items as safe to sell in stores and supermarkets. These include 18 digestive aids, 11 intestinal drugs, five ointments, two pain relief patches and 12 drinks products. Painkillers, such as Tylenol and Aspirin, cold remedies, such as Pancold, and medicated patches are included in these.  

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