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CDC Approves At-Home COVID Tests for International Travel

By Michelle Baran

May 11, 2021

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The new must-have accessory for international travel? A COVID self-test kit.

Courtesy of Abbott

The new must-have accessory for international travel? A COVID self-test kit.

A $25 COVID-19 home kit will satisfy the CDC's testing requirement for international arrivals.

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Traveling to the United States from abroad, or returning to the U.S. from another country, just got a little less complicated thanks to new guidance from the CDC regarding its testing requirement for international travel.

In a May 7 update the agency stated that “international air passengers traveling to the United States can use a self-test (sometimes referred to as home test).”

As of January 26, all international passengers age two and older flying into the U.S. (including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents) must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test procured within three days before boarding their flight to the U.S. When the CDC first introduced the order in January and until the May 7 update, the tests had to be laboratory generated.

Now, they can be self-administered tests as long as they meet these criteria:

  • The test must be either a viral antigen test or a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), such as a polymerase chain (PCR) test, reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) test, or a transcription-mediated amplification test.
  • The test must have Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • The testing procedure must include a telehealth video call during which someone authorized by the manufacturer supervises the testing procedure. (Note that some FDA-authorized self-tests that include a telehealth service may require a prescription, according to the CDC.)
  • The telehealth provider must issue a report confirming the patient’s identity, the name of the laboratory or healthcare entity, the type of test, and the specimen collection date.

Numerous airlines as well as international hotels in destinations currently allowing in American travelers, including Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean, have introduced testing options and resources to help Americans fulfill the CDC testing requirement. But this self-test option could certainly make international travel a little easier.

The CDC reminds international travelers that some countries may have rules or restrictions in place regarding the importation of COVID-19 test kits that are not authorized or registered there. “Travelers who are considering bringing a U.S.-authorized test with them for use outside of the United States should contact authorities at their destination for information before they travel,” the CDC advises.

At-home COVID test for international travelers

So, what are the options for test kits for those who would like to try to bring one along? The problem with most at-home test kits is that the vast majority still require users to physically mail their sample to a laboratory. That’s fine if you’re in the United States, but obviously that’s not very plausible if you’re abroad and need a test result from within three days of flying to the United States. There is, however, one COVID-19 test kit we found that meets the CDC requirements and offers the self-test option, produces results without a laboratory, and includes a telehealth service.

The BinaxNOW Antigen home kit is sold as a six-pack for $150, which comes out to $25 for each kit.

BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test

Buy now: $150 for a pack of six, eMed.com

The BinaxNOW COVID-19 home test is one of the few tests on the market with FDA emergency use authorization that does not require the user to ship a sample to a lab (and it also doesn’t require a prescription from your healthcare provider). It’s a rapid antigen self-test designed to detect both asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19. It can be used for children as young as 2 when the sample is collected by an adult—those 15 and older can collect their own sample.

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“It was super easy,” says Bryan Kinkade, AFAR’s publisher, who recently used the BinaxNow home tests for himself and his family for a trip to Costa Rica. His one piece of advice is to make sure to have “a solid Wi-Fi connection” so that you can download the app and conduct the telehealth video call. “They walk you through the entire process,” he says, remarking that the test is very similar to a pregnancy test—after 10 minutes or so the results pop up on the reader. “The healthcare provider comes back on camera to verify the results that you hold up to the camera, and then you can instantly see [your] results in the app.” 

After getting his results, he uploaded them directly into the United app to check in for the flight back to the United States. “I repeated the process with my wife and son, and 45 minutes after we started, my son was walking back to the beach for an afternoon surf. We were down there with some friends who were stressed out all week hoping that the local clinic would be open, that there wouldn’t be a line or any issues getting results back quickly.”

BinaxNOW was developed by health and medical diagnostics company Abbott. A trained telehealth professional guides users through the at-home self-test via a video call using Abbott’s NAVICA mobile app, where they can also access their COVID-19 test results. The standard kit comes with two nasal swabs—the technique for sample collection is less invasive than the very deep nasal swab sample collection we’ve all heard horror stories about (if not endured ourselves).

Some of the other at-home COVID-19 test kits on the market with the option to mail the sample to a laboratory include one for $109 from LetsGetChecked that American Airlines also offers its customers (oddly at an increased cost of $119), a saliva test made by Clinical Reference Laboratory and available through Walgreens Find Care for $119 (Walgreens also sells a home test kit made by Everlywell for $109), and Pixel by Labcorp for $119. It is worth checking for updates on these products in the coming days and weeks as the new CDC announcement could result in the developers creating a version that is compatible with the new self-test option. 

Vault also offers a $119 kit for travel to the U.S. from Mexico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic with an international shipping option. 

Correction (May 11, 2021): The original version of this article mentioned that the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test, available for $24 at Walgreens, satisfies the CDC’s requirement for international arrivals. That test does not meet the CDC’s requirements and is intended for personal use. The BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, available on eMed.com and mentioned above, does meet the CDC’s requirements for international arrivals.

>> Next: How Travelers to the U.S. Can Get COVID Tests Abroad

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