How to Buy Drugs While You're Abroad

Felipe Gabaldón via CC BY 2.0

Even with a copy of your prescription, it's not always easy to buy much-needed medication abroad. Here's how we did it.

I mean getting prescription drugs. It’s not easy, even with a copy of your prescription. So, I’ll walk you through how my wife and I obtained both of her much-needed prescription drugs. 

The first one we obtained quite easily—looking back on it—in Moldova, where we’re living. The second one was a little more complicated because it wasn’t available where we were, so it required a trip to another country.

The search is on

Before we left for 10 months abroad, my wife and I tried to do everything we could to be organized and prepared. But where prescription drugs are involved, it’s never easy.

My wife (who gave me permission, and encouragement, to write this story) takes two mental health medications every day. Their common names in the USA are Prozac and Wellbutrin, and before we left, Brieanne was able to get a three-month supply of each.

This gave us a few months to figure things out, but naturally we waited until the last minute.

In November, our first thought was to have the drugs sent from the USA, but we heard varying reports about the legality of this, not to mention the reliability. So, we started asking casually at nearby pharmacies if they had what we were looking for.

The first thing to do is figure out the names of the drugs in the country you’re in, because it varies. Prozac is technically named fluoxetine and Wellbutin is bopropriun. After stopping into several pharmacies in Chisinau—they are on almost every corner—it became clear that only fluoxetine was available in Moldova, but it required a prescription.

One tip we heard from other expats in Moldova was using a private German-run clinic where the doctors spoke English. So, we woke up one morning, went to the clinic, and showed the doctor Brieanne’s prescription for fluoxetine from the USA. “No problem,” she said, and wrote her a Moldovan prescription.

After paying the $25 appointment fee, we walked to the closest pharmacy, and had only a minor issue when the pharmacist mis-interpreted the prescription which was written for a “90-day” supply for “90 pills” (the prescription was for two pills per day). After some polite insistence, the pharmacist relented and handed over six boxes of fluoxetine with 30 pills each.

Taking the search abroad

This is when things got interesting. Buproprion wasn’t available in Moldova, but it was available in neighbouring Romania. Getting there would be quite easy—there were multiple marshrutkas (a type of routed, shared taxi every day leaving from the central bus station. But before making that effort we needed to confirm the availability.

We had one of my students call pharmacies in the biggest and closest Romanian city, but none of them could verify they had buproprion. Just because the Internet said the drug was available didn’t mean it was, so we brainstormed another option: Going to Spain, where we had local friends who checked and assured us it was available at every pharmacy.

So, the morning after we arrived in Madrid, I went to a pharmacy a few blocks from our Airbnb in the Centro and asked if they could sell me buproprion. I didn’t think they would, but thought I’d ask and just start a conversation. 

In Chisinau, the pharmacists all spoke at least a little English and were a good source of information. And I’m glad I did because I got some great advice from a young pharmacist named Ricky who spoke excellent English.

Whereas in Moldova we used a private clinic, Ricky said we should just go to the public health centre (“Centro de Salud”), which was only two blocks away, and that is exactly what we did.

My Spanish is very limited, so while walking in, I summoned my local friend on the phone and handed it over to the staff at the front desk. Surprisingly, amazingly, almost incomprehensibly, when I got the phone back, I was told that all the clinic had to do was check to make sure we were at the correct centre and they would write the prescription.

I told them the address of our Airbnb and without any verification whatsoever I was assured we were in the right place. They motioned for us to have a seat by Diagnostic Room #1, we waited just a few minutes for a couple people to see the doctor ahead of us, and within an hour,  we saw a doctor, got the prescription, and went to get it filled. No cost at all for the consultation. Mind-blowing.

Final takeways 

All in all, it was quite a learning experience and gave Brieanne and I several chances to reflect on the healthcare system in the USA.  

Perhaps the most interesting thing happened when we got to the pharmacy in Madrid to finally pick up the buproprion: they were extremely apologetic that they couldn’t give us the pills for free. This blew our mind.

How or why would we expect to not only have a no-cost doctor visit but also free access to prescription drugs in a foreign country? That was our mindset. Their mindset was: the right and ability to see a doctor and the right and ability to receive necessary medication should come without any cost.

This was a very educational experience for both of us. It required summoning a lot of our travel survival strategies—using Google Translate, relying on local friends, understanding how systems vary from country-to-country—and it helped us gain new insights into not only how public systems in other countries work but also how they work (or don’t work) in our own country.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Robert Eckhart

Bob Eckhart is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova. He has managed language programs in China, Turkey, and Indonesia and was previously the Executive Director of ESL Programs at Ohio State University. Bob was also a Fulbright Scholar in Belarus in 2018.


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