The Ultimate Guide to Covid Tests for Travel & How to Save Money
ARTICLE Covid-19 testing for travel is confusing and changing constantly. This guide aims to help you understand all the different types of tests, and learn where to get tested. Also on this page, we've assembled a large list of inexpensive covid tests for travel.
Note that with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly throughout the world, entry and test requirements are changing rapidly, so be sure to visit the relevant government website for the country you're visiting. Also, see: http://www.entryrestrictions.com
(Updated Dec 2021)
If you’ve been on a plane recently, I’m sure you’re aware that coronavirus testing for travel is incredibly confusing. There’s two reasons for this - first, there’s SO many different TYPES of tests, and second, the goalposts keep changing.
A friend of mine was flying from England to Copenhagen recently, and when she tried to check-in, they told her she needed a covid test because the rules had changed 2 hours earlier! I’ve had similar experiences. For example, I’ve been told on three separate occasions by British Airways' first-class check-in staff that I can’t travel, and they only relented after I showed and proved to them that I knew the regulations better than they did!
There’s not much we can do about the frequency of the changes (that's out of our hands) or airline staff not knowing the rules, but let’s take a look at the types of co-vid tests that are available, and let me preface what I’m about to say, by reminding you that I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV!
NOTE ABOUT TRAVEL TO THE UK: As of December 2021, FULLY vaccinated individuals DO need to take a covid test before traveling to the UK. This can be the rapid style antigen test. You will also need to order a PCR test BEFORE you travel, to be delivered to wherever you're staying, for you to take the test on day 2 after you arrive in the UK. More details below...
Types of Covid Tests
There are currently 5 different tests for Covid-19:
PCR, NAAT, LAMP, Antigen, and Antibody.
For travel purposes, we can rule out the antibody tests because they only detect if you’ve HAD Covid in the PAST. China is the only country that’s asking for that one at the moment, goodness knows why. Maybe because in China, everyone has had it?! ;-)
Of the other 4 tests, there are two categories – first, those that have to be sent to a lab, (which include the PCR and NAAT tests), and the second group which gives faster results within 15-30 minutes, including the antigen and LAMP tests.
The challenge with the tests done by a lab is the time it takes to get the results.
The vast majority of labs cite processing times of between 2 to 4 days. The issue is, the maximum time to get a test before travel is 3 days or 72 hours (in a few countries it's only 24 hours), so if you get the test result back on day 4, it’s too late – you’ll have missed your flight. This is a big problem, and sadly it means that passengers either have to cancel their trip, or be subjected to forced quarantine at their destination. It's one of the reasons why the CDC now says that tests for entry into the USA can be carried out at anytime during the 3 days prior to your flight (rather than up to exactly 3 days or 72 hours before the flight departure time).
So, as an example, if your flight is on Friday afternoon at 3 pm, under the old rules you could be tested at anytime from 3pm on the previous Tuesday. You can be tested at anytime of the day on that previous Tuesday, and still be compliant with the rules.
The good news is that the U.S. accepts the rapid and cheaper antigen-style tests for entry. That makes life a lot easier, but frankly the communication around this is an epic fail.
For example, although the requirement to be tested BEFORE entry into the UK now only applies to unvaccinated individuals, the UK government’s website gives the following instructions for people traveling into England. Under the section: “Test providers and type of test” it says,
What? I don’t speak Scientist, and I barely passed basic maths in school, let alone figuring out the percentage viral loads of covid-19 tests! It gets worse…
Where’s Bill Nigh when you need him? It made me laugh when it says, “this could include tests such as…” – if the government don’t know, how do they expect us to know?! Imagine grandpa Chuck and grandma Betty trying to make sense of all this, it’s mission impossible, isn’t it? No wonder travelers are so confused!
Note that although at-home PCR covid tests are a convenient option, most providers don't support these tests if you're traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday, because that requires you to mail in the test at the weekend, when there are no or few UPS or Fedex collections.
All I can say is to TRIPLE check the requirements several weeks before you travel, and make plans to take the tests as soon as you’re allowed. Many travelers are reporting that they can’t even GET the tests they need, because all the appointments are taken!
By the way, if you’ve been vaccinated, you might think you can avoid all these tests, but that’s not the case. At the moment, having the vaccine makes no difference whatsoever to the test requirements for travel, sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Oh, and I didn’t even touch on the miserable situation of people who’ve HAD Covid. SOME people KEEP getting a POSITIVE result for several months AFTER they’ve recovered! Many airlines don’t understand this, and so they’re unfairly turning perfectly healthy people away.
Needless to say, we really need a better, even universal approach to testing for travel. Hopefully the situation will improve over time, but for now it’s a real learning curve for everyone involved, isn’t it?
How have YOU been affected by this? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.
Where To Get Tested
Testing in the USA 🇺🇸
For State by State Entry Requirements, click here.
Both Walgreens and CVS (they have stores all over the U.S.) offer PCR tests.
Also, the Walmart website offers a range of at-home test kits.
Delta Airlines offers an easy-to-use in-person covid test finder on their website, just enter your city or country. Delta also offers a list of hotels and resorts (mostly in the Caribbean and South America) that offer on-site covid testing, to make it easy for U.S. travelers returning home.
Similarly, United Airlines also offers a handy in-person covid test finder, just enter your zip code.
Sesame Care - Sesame is a middle-man that facilitates both at-home and in-person tests in Texas, California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Vault Health - Convenient at-home saliva PCR test for a reasonable price.
https://www.vaulthealth.com/covid - I've used this a few times and it works well, and they're also approved for travel to Hawaii.
Covid Clinic - 68 Testing locations around the USA, offering all testing options. Convenient if there's a testing center near you, but it's expensive compared with other options.
Azova Health - Offers at-home saliva PCR test kits at a special rate, courtesy of Delta. You don't need to be traveling with Delta to take advantage of the discounted price.
Costco - Offers the Azova at-home PCR test kit on their website.
Lets Get Checked - Offers an at-home PCR test kit (via nasal swab) for a very reasonable $109.
Bulk Buy DIY Antigen Tests
One of the best options for frequent travelers is this kit of 6 antigen tests offered by eMed.com for $150 plus shipping. That works out to $25 per test! To use each test, you download their partner app called "Navica" and setup a free account. When you're ready to take the test, it will be supervised over a video call...
It's a simple nasal swab test, and the result appears like a pregnancy test on the testing stick, within about 15 minutes. A single line means you're all clear, and 2 lines indicates a positive result. The person on the other end of the video call will verify your result, and enter it into the app as an official document that is accepted by many countries for travel. Visit: www.eMed.com
Traveling to Hawaii?
Hawaii has separate rules to the rest of the USA. Currently, fully vaccinated U.S. citizen travelers do not need a covid test to enter Hawaii. However, NON U.S. Citizens must present their vaccination record AND a negative covid test result (NAAT or antigen style test (taken within 24 hours of boarding a flight to the U.S.)
If you have taken a covid test, you must receive the negative result BEFORE you board the plane.
U.S. citizens flying directly to Hawaii from an international destination have two options: (1) fully vaccinated U.S. citizens must provide proof of vaccination AND a negative COVID-19 test result within one day of boarding a flight to Hawaii OR (2) if not vaccinated, a negative COVID-19 test result within one day of boarding a flight to Hawaii.
Further Information for Travelers Heading to Hawaii:
Covid Tests in Major U.S. Cities / Airports:
Chicago: https://www.flychicago.com/business/media/coronavirus/Pages/mdwtest.aspx and
Ft Lauderdale: https://testing.nomihealth.com/easy_registration/34/onsite
Hartford, CT: https://bradleyairport.com/covid19testing-2/
LAX Airport (Los Angeles) - Offers on-site testing in terminals 2, Bradley, and 6. Rapid PCR tests are available, with results in 3-5 hours at the arrivals level test center near T6!
New York JFK: https://xprescheck.com/locations
Salt Lake City: https://xprescheck.com/locations
Washington DC / IAD: https://xprescheck.com/locations
Testing in the UK 🇬🇧
Note: Although many of the links and discounts below mention British Airways, it's not required to be traveling on BA to get the discount.
At-Home Test Kits (PCR tests you send into a lab):
HALO - Offers a PCR test you conduct at home. Currently the cheapest option. £74.76 with the BA discount code.
https://haloverify.com/buy/ - Use Discount Code: BRITISHAIRWAYSHALO
Nomad Travel - Offers an at-home kit for doing a PCR test, but it's a bit pricey compared with some of the other options.
CityDoc - Sends an overnight parcel of a PCR test at home, very reasonable price. Results from their lab take about 3 days, so be sure to plan in advance.
MedicSpot - Another at-home PCR test option, with a reliable guarantee for getting a fast test result. Return the kit to one of their test centers around the UK (for faster results), or mail it. Check the map coverage on their website to find the nearest center. Guarantees you'll receive your coronavirus results next-day by Midnight.
IQ Doctor - Get a PCR or Antigen test kit for use at-home.
MedExpress - Get either a PCR test or Antibody test for use at home. Antibody tests show if you've had covid in the past.
Qured - Get a PCR test kit for use at home. Results guaranteed within 24 hours of receipt of the returned package. They also offer at-home antibody tests (to determine if you've had covid19 in the past), which also need to be processed by the lab.
Lloyds Pharmacy - Get a PCR test kit for use at home. They also offer at-home antibody tests for a reasonable price., which need to be returned to the lab.
ProjectScreen - Get a PCR test kit for use at home. They also offer other types of tests, and walk-in clinics around the UK.
DIY Test Kits (For Rapid Antigen tests):
Qured - Get an antigen test kit for use at home or when you travel. The test is supervised over a video call and you'll get the result uploaded into a convenient app. These tests are valid for entry into the USA, Germany, Italy, and the UK. Tests are a very reasonable 39GBP, or 33 pounds if you use the BA discount code: BATRAVEL15.
See https://qured.com/health-travel-pass/#our-rapid-antigen-fit-to-fly-test for outbound testing, and https://qured.com/returning-to-england/ for tests if you're returning to England.
Interested in buying a batch of Antigen tests for your PERSONAL use? Medisave offers a bundle of 25 rapid antigen tests for your personal use (not suitable for travel because you won't have the Doctor/lab certificate to certify the result. It's a bargain at £207.
FREE At-Home Rapid Tests from the UK Government
UK citizens can order a pack of 7 rapid antigen tests to do at home, for FREE: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/testing/regular-rapid-coronavirus-tests-if-you-do-not-have-symptoms/ - these tests are like a pregnancy test. You place a swab up your nostrils, then place the swab on a test strip, and you'll get the result in about 15 minutes. Note, these free government tests are NOT suitable for travel, since the result is not certified by a Doctor.
Nomad Travel - Offers both PCR and rapid antigen tests at their 3 clinics in London, plus Bristol, Cardiff, and Manchester. They also offer antibody tests to determine if you've had Co-vid in the past.
https://www.nomadtravel.co.uk/travel-clinic/clinic-finder - Use Discount Code: BRITISHAIRWAYS15
CityDoc - Get a PCR or Antigen test at one of their two London clinics:
London Medical Laboratory - Get a PCR or Antigen test at one of their 6 clinics in and around London. If you're having trouble getting an appointment at Heathrow, the Slough clinic is just 20 mins from Heathrow and usually has last-minute appointments available. Offers a same-day PCR service at a premium price.
Randox Travel Centres - Get a PCR test at one of their clinics in Holywood, Crumlin, Liverpool, London, and Belfast Airport. Promises fast results with 12-24 hours.
Collinson Group - Offers ALL types of tests at Heathrow and London City airports. A convenient option at Heathrow T2 and T5, as well as London City airport. You do need to book an appointment in advance on their website. Use the discount code: BA20OFF
ExpressTest - Offers PCR tests at 17 locations around the UK, including at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, and Edinborough airports. Offers fast results, (often same day, but occasionally next day, which is still faster than most providers.)
Sofitel Heathrow Hotel "Test and Rest" - Surprising that not more hotels haven't done this. The Sofitel offers a combined room night and PCR Covid test. Get results the next morning after the test.
Randox Travel Centres - Get a PCR test at their clinic at Belfast Airport. Promises FAST results with 12-24 hours.
Day 2 / 8 Covid-19 Test Kit for Entering the UK:
Currently, the UK Government has designated a Green/Red designation for other countries. If you are traveling to the UK from a 'Green' country you need to order a PCR test to take 2 days after arrival.
If you're traveling to the UK from a 'Red' country, you'll need to order a kit with 2 tests, to take on day 2 AND day 8 after arrival. You can view the official list of 'red' countries here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/red-list-of-countries-and-territories
The tests need to be ordered BEFORE you start your journey, from one of the approved vendors on this list: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/providers-of-day-2-and-day-8-coronavirus-testing-for-international-arrivals
Prices vary wildly, and typically are in the range of £49.00 to £350.00 ! That's an outrageous price that's impossible to justify, and they seem to be trying to dissuade people from traveling. Remember too, if you're not yet fully vaccinated, you'll ALSO need to take up to 72 hours before you enter the UK! Yes, travel is expensive right now with all these tests!
NOTE: All of the cheapest providers on the Government list have experienced serious delays with providing test results. For example, I had an awful experience with "Now Test" - they failed to deliver a result on BOTH of my PCR tests! Plus, there's no way to even contact them from their website. Hopeless! Others are reporting that they didn't receive results for more than a week, which completely defeats the objective of the testing program!
UPDATE: There's a NEW provider for the day 2/8 tests called "Testing For All," that's a non-profit, and as such, they're making the Day 2 post-arrival test kit available for just £49! Note that limited tests are available for each arrival day, so be sure to book well in advance! Details at: https://www.testingforall.org
British Airways now has a helpful summary of covid testing providers on their website: https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/incident/coronavirus/covid19-tests
Want to see if you've HAD Covid-19 in the past?
There's a test available in the UK by non-profit "Testing For All" that checks your bodies level of antibodies, which in turn will tell you whether you've had covid in the past: https://www.testingforall.org/product/covid-19-immunity-tracker/
In the U.S, this website may help you get up to date information about the availability of the vaccine in your area: https://vaccinefinder.org/
Antigen Lateral Flow test vs PCR - What Should You Choose?
In some circumstances, you're allowed to choose between a rapid antigen test, or a PCR test. Which one is best? Which one should you choose?
First, if you have had Covid in the past 90 days, I recommend you use an antigen test, because you can still test positive for Covid after up to 90 days with a PCR test. While you could provide evidence that you have recovered according to the above guidelines, that's a pain, as it involves getting a letter from your doctor confirming that you had Covid.
To determine if your test results are still positive, you could first try a government-supplied test, which you can often get for free.
Another advantage of the rapid antigen (lateral flow) type test is it's cheaper. It also gives you more flexibility, as you don't have to send it to a lab and then wait for test results to arrive. Also, if something goes wrong with a PCR test and your test results don't come back, you'd have to wait for the provider to send you another test, which is a big hassle.