When we arrived back to our hotel after tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda, I received a much-anticipated email. The subject line was simply “Success!,” and it brought the wonderful news that my diabetes supplies were successfully picked up from DHL by a very kind friend of ours. It made an already great day that much better, as I had waited on pins-and-needles for the last week to hear this news.
My supplies (including OmniPod pods and CGM sensors) were stuck in limbo with Spanish customs for a week. Apparently, Spain requires an importer license for this supplies, which I do not have. To get them through, my husband and I spent a week in Rwanda placing calls over Viber to Spanish DHL and customs representatives, trying to communicate through broken Spanish and dropped phone calls.
This shipment was part of my original packing plan, to carry three-months of diabetes supplies on me at a time and have re-supplies either shipped to me or carted on a plane with one of our visitors during the year.
Three months into our trip, we stopped in the U.S. for a close friend’s wedding and I picked up supplies then. Six months into our trip, I needed my first shipment and asked my mother to ship this round of supplies to Spain. Peter and I were going to stay with friends in Mallorca, Spain, so I had a reliable address to ship to.
What I learned
If I could go back and revise my packing plan for this year of travel, I would have done everything possible to avoid shipping these supplies in the first place. I would have carried nine-months of supplies with me when we stopped back in the U.S. at month three of our trip.
Knowing that several thousand dollars of medical supplies are in a box somewhere in a foreign country, without a guarantee you’ll be able to receive them or ship them home — it was a bit stressful. To me, it would have been worth adding an extra bag to our luggage from the start.
My Steps to Ship CGM and Insulin Pump Supplies
While shipping these supplies wouldn’t be my first choice, if you’re going to pursue it I outlined the steps I followed below. I found this information tremendously hard to find online before my trip, so I’m hoping this will be helpful.
I will also caveat that my supplies shipped from the U.S. to Spain, and the process will obviously work differently in every country.
- I choose to work with DHL, over other carriers. DHL has the broadest international network and specifically has offices in Spain, where I was shipping it to.
- I emailed DHL in advance to ask if they could ship these supplies (a copy of my email inquiry is below). I only sent this email to U.S. DHL, who cleared the shipment. In retrospect, I should have sent a duplicate version of this email (translated in Google Translate) to the Spanish DHL customer help email.
- I compiled a package of paperwork, for my mother to print and enclose in the package she dropped off at DHL. The package contained:
- A cover letter explaining the situation (a copy of this cover letter is below)
- The email exchange with DHL stating that the supplies could be shipped
- A copy of my doctor’s letter stating that I have T1D and need these supplies
- A copy of my passport
- A copy of my flights showing when I was to arrive in the country
- I tracked the package obsessively, once I had the tracking number. 😉
- When the package would not clear customs, I had them hold it at the closest office to where I was arriving in Spain, so it could be discussed in person. In my case, DHL wanted to hold the package in Barcelona, but I was not visiting there. It took a few conversations, but they agreed to hold the package in Mallorca, Spain until we could come to discuss it in person rather than the phone.
- My friend picked the package up at DHL a few days before we arrived. She managed to get the package after stressing it was for personal use, not for re-sale. For this kindness and her Spanish-speaking-skills, I am very grateful.
What about my family or friends flying to visit me, who could bring me more supplies?
I could not find a clear answer online (or via airline customer service) as to whether it is legal for a family member or friend to carry medication on a plane that is not theirs. Some sources said it was fine with clear documentation, and some said not. Most sources were referring to ingestible medication (i.e. pills), so it feels like insulin pump supplies and CGMs are a grey space. I felt that there would be very little to no risk asking someone to bring insulin pump supplies or CGM sensors…but it can certainly add stress to someone’s travels to carry them.
What about the temperatures under the plane if I’m shipping supplies?
I went back and forth about the temperatures under a plane and whether it would damage my supplies. Both companies said I should not put anything under a plane. But DHL did not offer temperature-controlled shipping so I did not have a choice. When I thought about it more, I’ve sent wine in a suitcase under a plane and it never arrives frozen and ruined on the other side of my flight (nor do my shampoo or lotion or other things I check) – so I felt like it can’t get that cold to ruin my supplies.
Why not just ship the package and not tell them what’s inside?
It would have been much easier if we didn’t have to disclose to DHL that my package contained medical supplies. But DHL requires a list of package contents before it accepts an international shipment – so, really, there’s no choice 😉
What about shipping insulin or other medication (i.e. pills)?
This information is particular to CGM and insulin-pump supplies only—the electronics of the devices rather than a medicine that is injectable or ingestible. I would not try to ship insulin or other medications like pills; that is easy enough to buy overseas or small enough to pack and bring with you. Additionally, I think if my package contained “traditional medicines” like pills it would not have gotten through. CGM sensors and pump supplies seem to occupy a strange grey space of medical supplies because they are not ingestible.
Initial Email Enquiry to DHL (send to both U.S. DHL and the country you are shipping to)
I am currently traveling abroad and have Type 1 Diabetes. I am hoping to have my mother mail me insulin pump supplies from the USA to SPAIN. These supplies are electronic devices used for the insulin pump, but do say “RX Only” on the label. However, they are not ingestible like a typical prescription.
I’m curious if DHL can ship these, and if so if I need to fill out any customs forms?
Cover Letter to Enclose in the Package
To Whom It May Concern,
Enclosed are insulin-pump supplies for myself, a Type 1 Diabetic. The supplies are all electronics related to the insulin pump. No batteries or injectable or ingestible medication is enclosed.
Attached you’ll find an email chain with DHL saying that I can ship them, and a letter from my doctor stating that I need these items.
Lastly, I have attached a copy of my passport and my flight information showing that I will be arriving in [city, country] on [date]. I am arriving after several months in [blank] and am in need of these re-supplies.