Where to Find Emergency Contraception

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 31, 2013
4 min read

Emergency contraception is safe, works well, and should now be available to anyone who needs it.

But you have to know where to find it. The FDA has changed the rules about how pharmacies sell some types of emergency contraception. Before you walk into a drugstore, learn more about what's available.

There are several versions of emergency contraception. How you get them falls into three categories.

1. Only one emergency contraceptive drug is available without a prescription and with no age restrictions:

Plan B One-Step. This drug should be in the family planning aisle of your pharmacy, along with the condoms. It comes as a single pill. Anyone should be able to buy it without a prescription. But your pharmacy may not sell it that way yet. “We anticipate the process will be gradual and hope to see it more widely available soon,” says Denise Bradley, vice president of corporate communications at Teva Pharmaceuticals, which makes Plan B One-Step.

2. Several drugs are available without prescription but only to people age 17 and older:

  • My Way and Next Choice One Dose. These are generic versions of the drug in Plan B One-Step, levonorgestrel. They come as a single pill. Both should be in the family planning aisle, but you'll have to show ID to buy them. If you're under 17, you'll need a prescription.
  • Double-dose generic levonorgestrel. The double-dose just means it's two pills instead of one. Otherwise, it's the same as single-dose versions. Confusingly, double-dose levonorgestrel is still behind the pharmacy counter, not in the aisle. Why? It's what the FDA allows. Again, people under 17 need a prescription.

3. Treatments that you can get only by prescription:

  • Combination pills. This is a name for taking a higher dose of regular birth control pills. Whatever your age, you need a prescription. Don’t take extra doses of your regular birth control pills without talking to your doctor.
  • Ella. No matter your age, you need a prescription for Ella.
  • IUD. The copper-T IUD, a small device that's placed in your uterus, also requires a prescription. A doctor will have to insert it for you. Also, research shows that Plan B One-Step starts to lose its effectiveness in women heavier than 165 pounds and is not recommend for anyone over this weight. Instead, a copper-T IUD is the suggested option for emergency contraception in this group.

Nowadays, you should be able to walk into a pharmacy and buy some form of emergency contraception. But that doesn’t always happen. Why?

  • Recent FDA changes. The FDA removed the age restrictions for Plan B One-Step in 2013. Legally, anybody can buy it now. But it may take time before every pharmacy sells it that way. Right now, your pharmacy might still ask for ID showing that you're 17 or older. Call ahead to make sure you can get the drug you want.
  • Employee confusion. "A lot of employees are still confused about what's legal and what's not," says Kelly Cleland, MPH, a researcher at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. Surveys show that some pharmacy employees don't follow the guidelines. They may have outdated ideas about restrictions. Some may think that you need a prescription for an over-the-counter drug or believe that there's an age restriction for a drug when there isn't.
  • State laws. Some states may pass laws attempting to restrict who can buy emergency contraception. For instance, Oklahoma recently passed a law preventing anyone under 17 from getting Plan B One-Step without a prescription.
  • Call ahead. It’s worth repeating: Don't waste time by going to a pharmacy where the pill isn't in stock, Cleland says. When you speak to the staff, also ask about any restrictions, so that you're sure you can get it.
  • Check prices. Calling around can save you money. One survey found that the average cost of Plan B One-Step at a pharmacy is $48, with a range between $32 and $65. The generic drugs aren't much cheaper, averaging about $42. The pills may be cheaper at women's health centers, university health centers, health departments, and hospitals.
  • Consider getting a prescription. It may be inconvenient to schedule an appointment with your doctor. But having a prescription can make it easier to get emergency contraception. You won't have to worry about age restrictions.
  • Call your insurance company. Find out if it covers emergency contraception. If it does, you should be able to get prescription pills cheaper or at no cost. You'll need to see your doctor to get a prescription.
    Health care experts aren't sure exactly how the new health care law, called the Affordable Care Act, will change insurance coverage for emergency contraception. Your plan may not cover all options. Check with your insurance company.
  • Know your rights. You may meet some pharmacy employees who say that you can't get emergency contraception, even though legally you can. If you have problems, don't feel embarrassed or give up. Go somewhere else. You can also get advice from the Emergency Contraception Hotline at 888-NOT-2-LATE, operated by Princeton University.