The need for COVID testing doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Even as more people get vaccinated worldwide against COVID-19, variants such as Delta and Omicron have put numerous countries on high alert. Once again, there are new—and in some cases, stricter—COVID testing requirements for travel.
As of December 6, the United States began requiring that all international arrivals get tested for COVID no more than one calendar day before flying to the United States, regardless of vaccination status. That’s down from three days prior, making it even more of a last-minute challenge to get tested before flying to the U.S.
France and the United Kingdom also reintroduced COVID testing requirements in December for all travelers, regardless of vaccination status. The sudden developments served as a reminder of how quickly travelers sometimes have to scramble to find tests that satisfy new rules—for many, it’s overnight. How do you stay on top of so many changes? How do you know what you need? Look here for starters.
Whether travelers are in search of a COVID test before heading abroad or need to re-enter the U.S., here are the (numerous) options and ways to get a COVID test for international travel.
What kind of COVID test is required to enter the U.S.?
According to the official order issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID tests that satisfy the U.S. entry requirement include a PCR test, antigen test (including a rapid antigen test), or an approved home or self test, which means that there are some easier options than a PCR test, the results for which can take longer to obtain—though, there are services that offer “rapid PCR” tests, usually for an added cost.
CDC-approved COVID self tests for international travel
For travelers who are worried about obtaining a PCR or antigen test within a day of flying back to the U.S., there is the option of bringing a set of COVID-19 home or self tests with them. The CDC has approved a handful of self tests for international travel. They include the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test with Azova, and Cue COVID-19 tests—all of which we have reviewed.
The tests can be self-administered—meaning you do your own nasal swab—but to meet the CDC requirements, they must be paired with a supervised telehealth video call in real time. (The above tests include the telehealth call service.) Travelers, take note: You must have a reliable internet connection wherever you plan to administer the test, so logging into the telehealth video call isn’t an issue.
How to find a testing site abroad
Want to find out if the country you’re planning to visit has COVID testing sites that can turn around results within a day? A great place to start is the U.S. State Department’s detailed COVID-19 travel information and country-specific advisories, which include an entire section on COVID-19 testing for each country. Right up front, the section answers the question of whether PCR and/or antigen tests are available to U.S. citizens and whether test results are reliably available within one calendar day. It also often includes information about where and how to obtain such tests.
Another good resource is TestforTravel.com, where you can search any international destination for testing centers and filter by the specific type of COVID-19 test you’re looking for.
The good news is that testing has ramped up worldwide, and it has become more widely available at international airports and hotels. Travel companies—including airlines, cruise lines, and tour operators—and travel advisors are also stepping in to help international travelers either actually get tested or find testing sites in their destination. The bad news is that pricing varies wildly. Tests can run anywhere from several dollars to several hundred dollars, which can make travel budgeting a bit of a nightmare.
American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines have all developed resources to provide passengers with international testing information. American is doing so with the VeriFly app, a global health pass that allows users to more easily upload their health data.
Through its United app, United has added a feature called the “Travel-Ready Center” (located in the “My Trips” section of the app or online at United.com). Once passengers access the Travel-Ready Center, they can identify COVID-19 travel requirements for upcoming trips, find local testing options, and upload proof of test results (as well as vaccination status).
Delta, too, has developed an easy COVID-19 testing search function on its website through which travelers can find testing center locations in numerous global destinations.
How to find a COVID test in the U.S. to travel internationally
First and foremost, you need to make sure you’re up to date on the latest entry requirements for the country or countries you plan to visit, or even just enter—there’s never been a better time to fly nonstop. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, these rules can change very quickly at times.
Again, the U.S. State Department’s country-specific COVID-19 advisories are a great place to start to find up-to-date entry rules and requirements. We have also rounded up our favorite interactive map tools that provide updated global COVID-19 travel information.
Once you know what’s required, whether you need a PCR or antigen test, for example, and within what time frame (between two and three days, or 48 to 72 hours, is the most common requirement), you can begin to track down testing options near you.
Mail-in COVID self tests
COVID testing throughout the U.S. is patchy at best in terms of availability and reliability, and it varies enormously from city to city, county to county, and state to state. Earlier this month, President Biden announced that at-home COVID tests will become more available and will be covered by private insurance plans. Additional details will be available in January, but there are a few home or self tests that travelers can stock up on with mail-in options that may qualify for health insurance reimbursement and that satisfy certain international government requirements for entry. (Of course, if the COVID test entry requirement is a very tight time frame—say, two or three days prior to travel—these mail-in options might not work.)
Note that these tests can be used for travel from the U.S. to international destinations that will accept the results, not the other way around. The tests that work for inbound travel to the U.S. from abroad were mentioned above and were reviewed by AFAR editors.
Here are some of the options we have found for self tests that could work for travel:
- EverlyWell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit DTC ($109 per test, or discounted for $81.75 with code GIVEMORE): This FDA-authorized PCR test is delivered within two to eight business days of order, so it should be ordered at least a couple of weeks before travel. Once you receive it, take the self-administered test and mail it the same day using the included overnight delivery label. Upon receiving the sample, the lab will provide results within 24 to 48 hours.
- Pixel by Labcorp COVID-19 Test At-Home Collection Kit ($119 per test): An FDA-authorized PCR test that is typically delivered within two days of order. The self test includes a FedEx overnight label that travelers use to send the sample back to the lab, where results are processed within one to two days.
- LetsGetChecked COVID-19 Pre-Flight Test & Lab Report ($109 per test): A home testing kit that travelers can order in advance. The company advises at least five days prior to travel (but why not stock up even earlier than that?). After collecting the sample yourself using a nasal swab, you then send it to the lab with a prepaid next-day delivery label, and results can be expected within 24 to 72 hours after arriving in the lab. This is also an FDA-authorized PCR test.
In-person COVID testing options in the U.S.
Large pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens, healthcare networks, and county and state health agencies are among the numerous entities that offer COVID testing but not always with the guarantee of receiving results within a specific two- or three-day window. Travelers may need to rely on pricier local private providers and urgent care centers (such as CityMD and Medical Offices of Manhattan in New York and COVIDCheckToday in Southern California, Denver, Las Vegas, and Miami) to get a test for travel quickly. DMCOVID-19 Test is a nationwide testing service that does house calls and offers same- and next-day results—for a hefty fee; same-day services will run you around $300 and next-day around $220.
Getting tested at the airport
Another option (or backup option if waiting until just before departure is a little too nerve wracking for you) is to get tested at the airport.
XpresSpa Group’s XpresCheck brand now has COVID-19 testing locations at 11 U.S. airports, including Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Dulles, Houston, Newark, New York (JFK), Phoenix, Seattle, and San Francisco. Services include a standard PCR test with results within 48 to 96 hours (for $75) and a rapid PCR test with results within 60 minutes (for a much heftier $250). Beyond XpresCheck, countless U.S. airports have their own testing facilities as well now, so travelers can look into options at their local hub.
U.S. airports that have COVID testing facilities include:
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Oakland International Airport
- San Diego International Airport
- Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport
- Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport
- Miami International Airport
- Tampa International Airport
- Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (Honolulu, Hawai‘i)
- Chicago O’Hare International Airport
- Chicago Midway International Airport
- Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport
- New York’s LaGuardia Airport
- Portland International Airport
- Philadelphia International Airport
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
What happens if you test positive?
“If you were to test positive for COVID-19 while overseas, you would need to postpone your trip back to the United States, potentially for several weeks. All travelers should have a plan B,” the U.S. State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, Ian Brownlee, said during a January 26 media briefing when the testing requirement for international travelers entering the U.S. was first introduced.
Brownlee noted that U.S. travelers should consider where they would stay, the cost of an extended stay, and the repercussions they would face if they could not immediately return, whether for work, for childcare issues, or other responsibilities.
“Think through the answers to these important questions carefully” prior to committing to travel plans, Brownlee said. Another recommendation he has for international travelers: Consider travel insurance that covers COVID-19 medical treatments and COVID-19 related travel disruptions.
And the same goes for outbound travel—travelers need to consider what kind of safeguards they have in place, including the cancellation policies for all components of their trip, in the event that they or anyone in their travel group tests positive before flying out.
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