What to Know About COVID-19 Testing for Travel
They can offer peace of mind, but most aren't accepted for return to the U.S.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirement that all travelers coming to the United States provide official proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight, travelers are understandably nervous — and a bit confused — about the whole process.
Here are some answers to common questions about COVID-19 testing for travel.
What are the U.S. testing rules for international travel?
For reentry to the U.S., the CDC requires all air passengers age 2 years and older (including U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated passengers) to provide either documentation of a negative test taken within one day of their flight or documentation of recent recovery from COVID-19, along with a letter from a health professional certifying that the person is cleared to travel. The test must be an authorized viral antigen or nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT).
Note that non-U.S. citizens need to show proof of vaccination prior to their flights to the U.S.
How and where can you get tested before your return to the U.S.?
Many international hotels are now offering approved and sometimes free COVID-19 tests for their guests that are almost becoming a standard part of the checkout process (see details of one example in sidebar). Local clinics and some airports offer CDC- and airline-approved tests as well, although costs, availability and timing vary widely — from free to sometimes well over $100 for a test.
The CDC has started distributing free tests at three international airports around the U.S. (at Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami and Chicago O'Hare), and has announced plans to expand the giveaways to other airports soon.
Many U.S. embassies, including in Britain, provide lists of approved local testing providers. Airlines also provide information about testing requirements and airport testing options.
Aside from finding an approved test to take (using local guidance from your airline, hotel and/or embassy), the most important step is to manage the timing of your test. If you plan to take a test at the airport, be sure to allow plenty of time for both the test and receiving the results, as wait times can be unpredictable — some travelers are facing long lines during the holiday travel season — and note that the test station may be far from your departure gate.
What is the hotel testing process like?
Many hotels have the return COVID-19 testing process set up seamlessly. For example, on my recent trip to Riviera Nayarit, Mexico, the Dreams Bahía Mita Surf & Spa Resort gave me COVID-19 testing forms upon check-in, with a testing appointment scheduled the day before my checkout ($35 per test, free for Club Level guests). At my appointment time, masked guests were waiting with their passports in a hallway outside a conference room converted into a testing center. Inside, a nurse from a contracted health provider administered Abbott’s rapid antigen test with a nose swab. I waited semi-nervously to receive the text message about 15 minutes later, which indicated that my test was negative. (If the test comes back positive, the resort offers free quarantine lodging for up to 14 days.) The hotel provided an official form certifying the results (I took a photo of the page for backup). At the Puerto Vallarta airport, I provided my test results form when I checked in and was good to return home.
Can you test yourself?
While rapid off-the-shelf “at-home” (self-administered) antigen tests can provide an initial screening and peace of mind for travelers, they won’t meet the CDC requirements for reentry. (See our story for more on home testing.)
For a home test to meet CDC reentry requirements, it must be a SARS-CoV-2 viral test (nucleic acid amplification test or antigen test) authorized by the FDA or the government of the country where you are. The test must also have an approved telehealth component that provides real-time supervision — so you’ll need a good Wi-Fi connection to consult with a medical professional from the test manufacturer who will confirm your identity, watch you administer the test and confirm the results.
And the test must be able to produce approved documentation to share with airline and customs officials. The CDC-approved travel reentry tests available online include Abbott’s BinaxNOW Ag Card Home Test ($70 for a two-pack), which will give you results within 15 minutes. The Qured Video Supervised Rapid Test ($45) is similar, with two tests included: The first is done under video supervision; the second, taken without supervision 24-36 hours later, is meant to confirm the result.
For frequent travelers, Cue Health has introduced its own testing device with a membership service. It's $474 for a device plus three tests, or a monthly service beginning at $50. To return to the U.S. after international travel, you'd need the Cue+ Complete membership, which is $90 per month.
What if you just want peace of mind that you don't have COVID-19 before traveling to visit family and friends within the U.S.?
In that case, you can use over-the-counter tests from drugstores. But there have been severe shortages for these quick-and-easy tests, which offer results in less than 15 minutes, as omicron’s spread has led to a surge in demand.
While many countries have over-the-counter tests available for purchase once you get there, it might be a good idea to bring a few test kits with you (if you can find any). They can provide peace of mind if you are exhibiting symptoms, and save you time searching pharmacies for test kits (or a potentially expensive trip to a clinic at your destination). Again, these over-the-counter tests will not be enough to gain approval for return to the U.S., unless they have the certified telehealth component included.
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What happens if you fail your return COVID-19 test?
Regulations for travelers receiving a positive test vary widely by country. Even if you're asymptomatic, you will typically be required to quarantine — either at a government-mandated location or one of your choosing — for at least a week, with a negative test required to exit quarantine. A few countries take care of the cost of quarantine food and lodging, many others do not, and costs can quickly accumulate.
This is the time when you should consider purchasing travel insurance — and choose COVID-19-specific options on your policy. Read the fine print carefully. Given the recent rapid spread of the omicron variant, it certainly would be wise to look into relevant travel insurance options for any international trip.
A few more tips
· Stay on top of CDC guidance. Before traveling, be sure to confirm the latest requirements on the CDC website, and with your airline. You don’t want to be denied access to your return flight with an unapproved test or missing paperwork.
· Check your destination’s testing requirements. Other countries’ testing and vaccination rules vary widely, but many require visitors to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days (some within 24 hours) of travel with approved PCR or antigen tests.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 21, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.