empty pill bottle

Refilling Pharmacy Prescriptions Online (Laws & Help)

Patients who take many medications, need them for a long time, or want to save money may look to online pharmacies. Despite the negative reputation of online pharmacies, there are legitimate ways to purchase prescription medication online. You just have to educate yourself a bit. (Learn More) 

Even so, some patients unknowingly end up on a fake online pharmacy’s website. The Food and Drug Administration has come up with many educational tools that can help you tell these pharmacies from legit ones.

Keep in mind that any purchase of prescription medication without a proper prescription is unlawful and could carry legal consequences if you are caught. (Learn More)

Fake online pharmacies do not just prey on people who truly need prescription medications. They engage in other dubious practices that could put your health or credit at risk. (Learn More)

There are many ways to spot a fake online pharmacy that can prevent you from breaking the law or falling for a scam. (Learn More)

Staying on the Right Side of the Law

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says you need a prescription in order to buy certain substances online. The DEA states that only a prescription from a physical visit to a doctor allows you to lawfully purchase the following prescription medications in online pharmacies:

This is not a comprehensive list of all medications. Per the DEA, an online prescription or e-prescription does not count, and buying prescription medication this way is still unlawful.

As such, one of the best ways to start off right is to get a prescription from your primary doctor for the medication you need. This is necessary for the first time you use the medication and for refills.

Familiarizing yourself with legitimate online pharmacy practices can also help you avoid breaking the law or buying an unsafe product.

prescription form

Spotting an illegitimate Online Pharmacy

It can be relatively easy to spot a rogue online pharmacy that could be peddling counterfeit products or simply acting illegally. These are common signs of an illegitimate online pharmacy:

  • They only have an online presence. Traditional pharmacies, such as Rite-Aid, Walgreens, or CVS, have physical locations where you can obtain or refill your prescription medication if you choose to. They also have websites you can use for this purpose.
    An illegitimate online pharmacy may not have any physical locations. Though this does not always indicate they are operating illegally, proceed with caution if you find an online pharmacy with no traditional storefronts.
  • They do not carry a VIPPS seal. Online pharmacies that are licensed to sell and refill prescriptions carry a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites This means the FDA has approved this online pharmacy to sell medication online.
  • They do not request to see a physical prescription. An approved online pharmacy will always ask you to submit your doctor’s prescription. Poison Control says that fake pharmacies may ask you to answer questions instead.
  • They do not provide a receipt. Like a traditional pharmacy, a legitimate online pharmacy will strive for transparency and provide a receipt for your purchase.

Medication You Cannot Buy Online

You cannot lawfully buy prescription medication online without a prescription. An online pharmacy’s in-house doctor cannot write you a prescription with legal standing. A doctor who talks to you over the phone (telemedicine) will not prescribe medicine for you, but they may make an assessment.

It is also unlawful to buy medication overseas. This may be tempting because it is true that medical and pharmaceutical costs in the United States are quite high.

The FDA only allows a person to buy medication from a foreign pharmacy if:

  • A patient carries appropriate documentation for medication bought at a foreign pharmacy and declares it with U.S. Customs.
  • A person is carrying a supply that lasts for three months or less.
  • The prescription is for a drug that has not been approved in the U.S. but was prescribed for a serious health issue. No equivalents are available in the country yet, so overseas options are viewed as acceptable.

Additional Risks of Buying Medication From Rogue Pharmacies

Licensed online pharmacies sell legitimate, safe medications, and they also have strict data protection measures to protect your privacy.

In addition to breaking the law, you run into other risks if you buy medication from unlicensed pharmacies.

  • You may obtain expired medication. Expired prescription medicine does not provide the same protection as unexpired medication.
  • You could receive counterfeit medication. Poison Control warns that you may receive medication that does not contain the active ingredient, may be a completely different drug altogether, or may be contaminated with something that puts your health at risk.
  • Someone will have your credit card information. In addition to lax privacy protections, someone who is involved in criminal activity will have your credit card information and mailing address. You could even have your identity stolen.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it always illegal to buy pharmacy prescriptions online?

No, but it is important to become familiar with protocols and regulations governing online pharmacies. As a rule of thumb, try to shop at online pharmacies you have heard of (such as CVS, Rite-Aid, and other major pharmacy companies with online options), or ask your insurance provider for a list of approved online pharmacies.

If you have a prescription, and the online pharmacy you shop at is licensed to sell in your state, then buying or refilling your medication is perfectly legal.

What are the consequences of buying prescriptions illegally?

The DEA says that shopping for medical prescriptions illegally carries legal ramifications. These depend on where you live and where you buy your medication.

Generally, buying medication from a foreign online pharmacy or in another country must only be done with certain permissions. You could face fines or jail time depending on the nature of your purchase. Remember, buying a medication without a prescription is never legal — on or offline. 

What are some signs that an online pharmacy is illegitimate?

A rogue pharmacy will not ask to see your prescription or may offer to have their “in-house” doctor write a prescription for you to facilitate the purchase. Exercise caution if an online pharmacy does not provide a mailing or physical location address.

What other risks are associated with buying prescription medication from online pharmacies?

In addition to legal issues if you are caught, you may end up with expired or counterfeit medication. Lack of privacy protection means that your credit card information is in the hands of someone who is involved in criminal activity.


Report Suspected Unlawful Sales of Pharmaceutical Drugs on the Internet. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Be Safe Rx: Know Your Online Pharmacy. (February 2018). Food and Drug Administration.

Quick Tips for Buying Medicines Over the Internet. (September 2018). Food and Drug Administration.

Online Pharmacies: Avoid the Frauds. Poison Control.

How to Avoid Buying Fake Drugs Online. (February 2018). Verywell Health.

Is It Legal to Buy Other Prescription Drugs Online? (December 17, 2018). Verywell Health.

How to Safely and Legally Buy Drugs From Online Pharmacies. (November 2018). Verywell Health.

How to Buy Prescription Drugs From a Foreign Pharmacy. (April 2019). Verywell Health.

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