Taking expensive medicines or ones unavailable in Australia? Importing may be the answer

The cost-of-living crisis may be driving some Australians to look for cheaper medicines, especially if those medicines are not subsidised or people don’t have a Medicare card. Options can include buying their medicines from overseas, in a process called
personal importation“.


  • Jacinta L. Johnson

    Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy Practice, University of South Australia

  • Kirsten Staff

    Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy, University of South Australia

Others also use this option to import medicine that is not available in Australia.

Here’s what’s involved and what you need to know about the health and legal risks.

Cost-of-living crisis bites

Many Australians, particularly those with long-term illnesses, are finding it increasingly hard to afford health care.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the proportion of people who delayed or did not see a GP due to cost doubled in 2022-23 (7%) compared with 2021-22 (3.5%).

A survey published in 2022 of over 11,000 people found more than one in five went without a prescription medicine due to the cost.

For those with a Medicare card it’s usually best (and cheapest) to get medicines locally, especially if you also have a concession card. However, for some high-cost medicines, personal importation may be cheaper. That’s when an individual arranges for medicine to be sent to them directly from an overseas supplier.

A 2023 study found 1.8% of Australians aged 45 or older had imported prescription medicines in the past 12 months. That indicates potentially hundreds of thousands of Australians are importing prescription medicines each year.

Almost half of the survey respondents indicated they would consider importing medicines to save money.

What’s involved?

Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), allows individuals to import up to three months’ supply of medicines for their own personal use (or use by a close family member) under the personal importation scheme.

This often involves ordering a medicine through an overseas website.

If the medicine would require a prescription in Australia, you must also have a legally valid prescription to import it.

Selling or supplying these medicines to others outside your immediate family is strictly prohibited.

How could this help?

For some high-cost medicines, personal importation may be cheaper than having the medicine dispensed in Australia. This is most likely for medicines not subsidised by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (the PBS). People who do not hold a Medicare card may also find it cheaper to import certain medicines as they do not have access to PBS-subsidised medicines.

For example, for people with a specific type of leukaemia, treatment with sorafenib is not covered by the PBS. For these patients it could be up to about ten times more expensive to have their treatment dispensed in Australia as it is to import. That’s because there is a cheaper generic version available overseas.

Personal importation may also allow you to access medicines that are available overseas but are not marketed in Australia.

What are the risks?

All medicines carry risks, and medicine sold online can pose additional dangers. The TGA does not regulate medicines sold overseas, so the safety and quality of such medicines can be uncertain; they may not be produced to Australian standards.

While similar regulatory agencies exist in other countries, when ordering medicines from overseas websites it can be difficult to determine if the product you are buying has been assessed to ensure it is safe and will do what it says it will do.

The medicines purchased could be counterfeit or “fake”. Products bought through unverified or overseas websites may have undisclosed ingredients, contain a dose that differs from that on the label, or lack the active ingredient entirely.

Not all medicines can be legally imported through the personal importation scheme. Certain medicines are never allowed to be imported into Australia, and others can only be imported by a medical professional on behalf of a patient.

So if you attempt to import a restricted medicine, the Australian Border Force may seize it. Not only would you lose your medicine, but you could also receive a fine or face jail time.

As with any purchase from an overseas business, there is also a risk you may lose your money and you might not be protected by Australian consumer laws.

If you do choose to import medicines by buying them from an overseas website, you should also consider what could happen if delivery is delayed and you don’t get your medicine in time.

Where can I get more advice?

If you are thinking about importing medicines you should first discuss this with a health professional, such as your GP or pharmacist.

They can help you determine if personal importation is permitted for the medicine you need. You can also discuss if this is the best option for you.

If you are having difficulty covering the cost of your medicines your doctor or pharmacist can also explore other potential alternatives to ensure you are receiving the most cost-effective treatment available in Australia.

Where do I go online?

If you then decide to import, here are some reputable sites to help navigate the global online medicines market:

  • everyone.org helps people everywhere in the world access the latest medicines not available in their own countries

  • Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies is a not-for-profit organisation that collates information on how to find safe online pharmacies based in different regions of the world

  • PharmacyChecker has also collated a list of trusted online pharmacies that ship medicines internationally.

Australian government websites about importing medicines include those from the TGA and on what to consider when buying medicines online from overseas.

The Conversation

Jacinta Lee Johnson is employed as the Senior Pharmacist for Research within SA Pharmacy and is a Board Director for the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia. In the last five years, she has received research funding or consultancy funds (for development and delivery of educational materials) from SA Health, the Medical Research Future Fund, the Hospital Research Foundation – Parkinson’s, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia, the Australian College of Pharmacy, Mundipharma Pty Ltd, Aspen Pharmacare Australia Pty Ltd, Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd and Viatris Pty Ltd.

Kirsten Staff does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.