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Travel News Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 PCR tests for travel

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Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 PCR tests for travel

Whether you travel to sate your wanderlust or out of sheer necessity, planning for your next trip will look very different while the world is still under pandemic precautions. You now need to consider the COVID-related requirements you need to meet at the airport before you even board your flight.

One of those requirements, and among the biggest changes to travel, is the need for travelers to present their negative COVID-19 test result at the airport. This is just one of the ways countries and airlines are balancing the growing need to travel while keeping local infection numbers down. Luckily, airports around the world are offering appointments for travelers to get PCR tests — and even the opportunity to get vaccinated — making it a little more convenient to take this additional step.

Even though testing is much more accessible now than in the early days of the pandemic, it’s still unclear to many travelers which types of tests will be accepted, how long in advance they need to get tested and what the cost will be.

To help you navigate this new reality of PCR tests for travel, we shine a light on the most common test types and procedures to make your next trip a little less stressful.

We cover the following topics to help you plan your next adventure:

Please note: Because travel restrictions can change without warning, before traveling or making any decisions to travel, we urge you always to check your local government websites, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of State and the World Health Organization (WHO), for the latest information. This article was last updated on August 16, 2021, and to our knowledge contained accurate information at the time of publication.

Gloved hand holding a PCR test swab.

What types of COVID-19 tests are available for travel?

Before reviewing the types of tests accepted by airlines, let’s define two testing categories: diagnostic and serological.

A diagnostic test (also called a viral test) tells you whether you are currently infected with a virus. An antibody or serological test, on the other hand, looks for antibodies produced by your immune system. If you test positive, it means you’ve already had the virus.

So, which test do I need for travel?

When it comes to travel, in most cases, you need to present a negative diagnostic test. (Some countries do allow entry to those who can show documentation of past infection and recovery).

Right now there are two types of acceptable tests: molecular and antigen.

Molecular tests are also known as nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and real-time RT-PCR tests. They look for the virus on a genetic level via mucus samples collected from your nose and throat. Most molecular tests require lab analysis to determine results, which can take up to several days, and even a week in some cases. The results, however, are considered to be very accurate.

Loop-mediated amplification (LAMP) is another type of molecular test. This one can be processed on-site via a special machine and, as a result, yields results within hours instead of days.

Antigen tests, more commonly known as rapid tests, look for specific virus proteins. Like the PCR, it requires a mucus sample. Instead of going out for lab analysis, however, the sample is tested on the spot. Much like a rapid strep test, the sample is placed in a special solution that will react with the virus’ proteins. Results can take as little as 15 minutes but are less accurate than the PCR test.

The antigen test sounds perfect, right? But, wait! Many countries, such as Greece and Portugal, have particular time frames in place for each test type. For example, PCR tests (and similar molecular tests) are usually accepted if taken no later than 72 hours before departure, while antigen (rapid) tests can only be taken no longer than 48 hours before boarding your plane. It may end up being more inconvenient to get an antigen test if you’re tight on time in the days leading up to your trip.

Likewise, did you know some countries set minimum standards for tests? The UK, for example, requires that tests meet “performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml.”

So, make sure to check with your test provider that testing meets the required standards, if applicable. And, before gearing up for your next trip, don’t forget to check local government sites for specific instructions about accepted tests and the time frame you need results within.

Lone figure standing in a nearly empty airport

Which destinations require a PCR test on arrival?

The UK has always been a popular destination for U.S. travelers. If you plan to travel to the UK, you must provide proof of negative test results. Both PCR and antigen tests are accepted.

Switzerland and Italy, two other favorite European destinations for U.S. travelers, will accept a negative molecular or antigen test result, within specified time frames, if you are not fully vaccinated or have not recently recovered from COVID-19.

How long before traveling should I get the PCR test?

Most countries that require the presentation of test results generally use the following time frames: PCR tests taken within 72 hours of departure, and antigen tests taken within 48 hours of travel.

Where can I get a PCR test?

PCR tests can be done at home through a mail-in system or at a doctor’s office, urgent care center, medical clinics, drive-in sites, labs, some airports and even pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid.

How long do the results take?

Some rapid PCR tests are processed on the spot for same-day results. Generally speaking, however, results for molecular tests can take up to 72 hours or even a week, depending very much on the number of samples a lab is processing at that moment.

Antigen tests, on the other hand, take around 20 minutes to yield results. But make sure the country you are traveling to accepts antigen test results since they are not considered as reliable as molecular tests.

How much does the PCR test cost?

The price typically depends on why you are getting a test in the first place. If you have symptoms or known exposure to the virus, most health insurance will cover the cost of a COVID-19 PCR test. If you opt to test for travel or other reasons, according to the WSJ, prices can range anywhere from $60-$250.

Calculator, medical bills, pen and a stethoscope. We provide information on how much PCR tests cost.

Skyscanner has partnered with Let’s Get Checked. This testing service mails you your COVID test kits before you travel, at an exclusive 30% discount if you buy your flights through Skyscanner – taking the hassle and elevated cost out of getting COVID tests for travel.

Note that the service isn’t suitable for flights requiring a 48-hour test. Check your destination’s testing requirements with its government website and your airline before traveling, so that you know which testing package to go for.

Skyscanner has partnered with Let’s Get Checked to give you money off COVID tests for travel

What do I do once I get the results back?

Negative test results? That’s great news! You’re clear for travel providing you meet any other requirements that might be in place, as well as pass airport health checks, if applicable, upon departure and arrival. Most airlines accept digital copies of test results, but make sure to have a printed copy as a backup.

And remember, even if your test is negative, you will still have to practice social distancing, wear a face covering and wash your hands frequently.

If your test results come back positive, you must cancel all travel plans and follow the CDC’s protocol, which calls for immediate isolation, monitoring of symptoms and contacting your doctor. Relax, recover and go on some virtual trips to scratch your travel itch.

In uncertain times like these, it’s a good idea to search for and buy tickets with plenty of wiggle room. When you search and book through Skyscanner, you can filter your results for flexible tickets in case your plans change or have to be canceled. You may also want to consider looking into traveler’s insurance.

A last few words on PCR tests

COVID-19 testing for travel is going to be a reality for a while. And while some spontaneity is gone from travel, with careful planning, booking your next trip doesn’t have to feel like a monumental task. Always check your destination’s PCR test requirements, as well as requirements for your trip back home; check in with your test provider about wait times; book flexible; and don’t leave anything to the last minute!

Where can I go?

Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.

Discover which countries require PCR test upon arrival

Frequently asked questions about PCR tests

What kind of test do I need to travel?

PCR tests, a type of molecular diagnostic test, are considered “the gold standard.” They are also the most accepted tests when it comes to travel abroad. Antigen tests may not be accepted in all instances, so if you want to avoid any hassle, a PCR test is your best bet. Nonetheless, check local government sites for the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding accepted tests for travel.

Is there a rapid COVID-19 PCR tests?

Yes, rapid molecular tests are available with same-day results. However, these tests are not always covered by insurance and can range anywhere from $200-$350.

Can I get a test at the airport?

There are many national and international airports (often in collaboration with airlines) that offer on-site testing. In most cases, certainly not for international travel, don’t plan to just show up, take a test and board a flight. Many airport sites require an appointment or advance registration. Plus, not all airports offer same-day results for PCR tests.

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