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Where to buy drugs in Hong Kong

Walk down the street in Hong Kong and it doesn’t take long to walk by either a chain pharmacy or a mom and pop shop. Go in one and you will quickly find that they are all well stocked with common over-the-counter drugs and even a solid selection of Chinese traditional medicine. While the sheer number of stores is convenient for when you need over-the-counter medicine, many expats, especially those new to Hong Kong, struggle to find where to buy drugs in Hong Kong (the legal kind of course).

To help, here is our brief guide of where to find medicinal drugs in Hong Kong and how your insurance will cover them.

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Over-the-counter medicine

As we stated above, over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol (Panadol in Hong Kong), cough syrup, antacid, and every other drug that can be sold without a prescription can be found in all of the chain drug stores including Mannings and Watsons. You may need to visit one or two as stock will generally vary depending on the location and current demand.

Another location popular with many locals is the mom and pop pharmacies which are individually owned operations stocking a wide selection of medication similar to what you will find at the chains. These stores may not be 100% obvious when you first walk by them, as they also tend to carry non-medical goods such as toothpaste, lotion, and even toilet paper and tissues. Just look for the red and white Rx sign above the entrance.

Finally, convenience stores such as 7-11 and Circle-K also usually have a small selection of medications such as Panadol Cold & Flu, cough syrup, etc.

Prescription medicine

While there is a wide selection of medicine available over-the-counter in Hong Kong, there are actually fairly strict regulations around prescription drugs. Overseen by the Department of Health’s Drug Office, medicine in Hong Kong is broken down into three categories of classification:

  • Category 1: Drugs that can only be sold with the accompaniment of a prescription from a doctor.   
  • Category 2: Drugs that can be sold without a prescription but only at pharmacies. This means you will need to talk to a registered pharmacist to get the drug.  
  • Category 3: Drugs that can be sold over-the-counter without the need to talk to a pharmacist.  

What this tells us is that you can’t just wander into any pharmacy and purchase any medication. Instead, you have a couple of different options of where you can get your prescription drugs.

  • At your doctor’s office/hospital – Almost every doctor’s office, and all hospitals in Hong Kong are licensed to also dispense drugs, and will usually do so. First, you will need to see the doctor, who will subsequently issue a prescription which will be filled in the office. The drugs will be issued once you pay. If your prescription is an ongoing one, most doctors will leave a note in your file, allowing you to simply talk to the nurses to get your prescription filled.
  • At a registered pharmacy – The registered pharmacies (both chains and individually owned) can also dispense prescription medication as long as you have a prescription from your doctor. One thing to note about these pharmacies, however, is that not everyone will have your drug in stock, so you may need to visit a number of dispensaries.

If you have a prescription you need to be filled, try checking the List of Authorized sellers on the Department of Health’s Drug Office website here. One thing to note with prescriptions in Hong Kong is that they can usually only be filled once unless the doctor who issues it with a note saying that it can be issued a certain number of times or at a certain interval.   

Can I bring my prescription from my home country?

Hong Kong, like many other countries does not accept prescriptions issued by doctors in other countries. This means that if you are thinking of moving here, or go home for a visit and get a prescription, you will not be able to buy the drugs in Hong Kong. While, by law, you do need a license to bring pharmaceuticals from another country into Hong Kong, the Drug Office notes that, “Pharmaceutical products and medicines imported in the personal baggage of a person entering Hong Kong and which are accompanied by him and in a reasonable quantity for his personal use may be exempted from licensing requirement.”

One other thing to be aware of is that, while Hong Kong is well known for having a wide variety of medicine available, there is always a chance that the drug you take in your home country may not be available here. Be sure to check the Drug Office’s database, which lists all medicine available in the city, before you set out to buy drugs in Hong Kong.

What about unregistered pharmacies?

Despite the government’s efforts to ensure that all pharmacies in Hong Kong are not selling Category 1 and 2 drugs over-the-counter, some smaller stores may be willing to sell you these drugs without a prescription. As a recent article in Bloomberg highlighted, tourists are indeed having luck securing costly prescription drugs like Sovaldi (a drug used to cure Hepatitis-C) or Nexavar (a drug used in the treatment of liver cancer) from some smaller dispensaries in the city.

While the government is working to reduce the illegal sale of pharmaceutical drugs, there is a potential issue with buying these aside from the fact that you could be fined, and that is the drugs may not actually be real. That packet of Sovaldi may be sugar pills, or something else completely, which means you may get sick from taking them. Some health insurance plans have clauses in their Terms & Conditions which allows them to deny claims that stem from the taking of prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to you. This means you will be paying for any related medical care out of pocket.

Will my insurance cover prescription medicine?

Pretty much every plan sold by Pacific Prime will cover medication that is prescribed to you for medical conditions that start after you secure the plan. The key thing to be aware of here is that if your plan excludes pre-existing or ongoing medical conditions, this includes all medication directly related to that condition.

Take, for example, if your child has asthma and requires an inhaler like Symbicort (which is a category 1 medicine in Hong Kong, yet commonly used for long-term management of asthma). If your child has this condition before you secure a new health insurance plan and the provider informs you they will be excluded, the cost of the inhaler will not be covered by the provider.

Luckily, different providers will consider pre-existing conditions differently. For example, with individual plans some will exclude all conditions outright, while others will simply attach a loading or moratorium on claims.

What we recommend is talking to one of the health insurance experts at Pacific Prime Hong Kong. We can help you to find a more favorable plan for existing prescriptions or advise you on a plan that will cover your medical needs. Contact us today to see how we can help.   

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Jess Lindeman

Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.
Jess Lindeman