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Where to buy medicine in Hong Kong

Walk down the street in Hong Kong and it won’t be long before you pass 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 a solid selection of traditional Chinese medicine. While the sheer number of stores is convenient 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 Pacific Prime Hong Kong’s brief guide on where to buy medicine in HK and how your insurance will cover them.

Individual Health Insurance Plans

Where do I purchase over-the-counter medicine?

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as paracetamol (Panadol in Hong Kong), cough syrup, antacids, and other drugs 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, toilet paper, and tissues. Just look for the red and white Rx sign above the entrance.

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

Where do I purchase prescription medicine?

While there is a wide selection of medicine available OTC in Hong Kong, there are 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.

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

Where do I purchase drugs in Hong Kong?

Living in Hong Kong means you will have a plethora of sources to buy medications from. Here are the major sellers:

Clinics or hospitals

Almost every doctor’s office and all hospitals in Hong Kong are licensed to dispense drugs, and will usually do so. First, you 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 ongoing, most doctors will leave a note in your file, allowing you to talk to nurses to get your prescription filled.

Chain drug stores (authorized sellers)

Registered pharmacies in HK (both chains and individually owned) can also dispense prescription medication as long as you have a prescription from your doctor. However, one thing to note about these pharmacies is that not everyone will have your drug in stock, so you may need to visit a number of dispensaries.

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

Convenience stores (listed sellers)

As aforementioned, convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven and Circle-K are listed sellers of Category 3 drugs. This means you can easily obtain OTC medications at these chain stores. Additionally, you can also find common OTC in supermarket chains like ParknShop and Wellcome.

It’s important to note that all drugs sold here must be in a closed or original container. Unlike at mom-and-pop stores, no broken bulk is allowed.

Online pharmacies 

Many people are wondering where to buy prescription medicine online in 2022. As long as you have a prescription from your doctor, you can save time and money by buying your medicine online. However, you must look for a reputable pharmacy to ensure you get precisely what you’ve ordered. Online pharmacies in Hong Kong include Watsons, Mannings, CR Care Pharmacy, and PharmaCity. 

Where do I purchase Chinese medicine in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is home to thousands of licensed Chinese medicine retail shops. Much like the East-meets-West city-state, you can find a mix of Chinese and Western medicines at some retail stores, if they are part of a pharmacy. You can also find some Chinese medicine at the aforementioned convenience stores and supermarkets, though you will still need a prescription for certain medicines. Simply obtain one from your Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. They will usually fill it for you at their clinics.

Regulation of Chinese medicines 

There is a licensing and regulation system separate from Western drugs for Chinese medicines. It ensures that they are qualified and safe to administer/ingest. Please check out the Chinese Medicine Council’s website for a full list of medicines classified under this system. All Chinese medicines in Hong Kong are classified into two categories:

  • Schedule 1 medicines: These traditional medicines are sold by prescriptions issued by a registered Chinese medicine practitioner. Note that they contain toxic ingredients.
  • Schedule 2 medicines: You don’t need a prescription to buy these medicines in Hong Kong since they are relatively safe.

Further reading: Exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong

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 and getting a prescription from your home country, 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. Before you set out to buy drugs in Hong Kong, check the Drug Office’s database for a list of all medicines available in the city. 

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 an 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 to treat 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 the drugs may not 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 and conditions which allow them to deny claims that stem from taking prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to you. This means you will end up paying for any related medical care out of pocket.

Will my insurance cover prescription medicine?

Virtually every plan sold by Pacific Prime Hong Kong will cover medications prescribed to you for medical conditions that start after you secure the plan. That’s why you should secure international health insurance or other health insurance for expats from one of the top health insurance brokers in Hong Kong. The key thing to be aware of here is that if your plan excludes pre-existing or ongoing chronic conditions, this includes all medication directly related to that condition.

For example, let’s say your child has asthma and requires an inhaler like Symbicort (a category 1 medicine in Hong Kong used for long-term asthma management). If your child has this pre-existing condition before you secure a new health insurance plan, the provider will not cover the cost of the inhaler.

Luckily, different providers will consider pre-existing conditions differently. With individual plans, some will exclude all conditions outright, while others will simply attach a loading or moratorium (also known as a waiting period) on claims. On top of that, medical check-ups can add up to a hefty sum at Hong Kong’s private hospitals.

What we simply recommend to locals and expats in the SAR is talking to one of the health insurance experts at Pacific Prime Hong Kong. We can help you compare plans 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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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
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