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

We know that travel is especially difficult right now, if not off-limits. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you'll be ready.

If you’re planning a trip this coming year – or if you need to travel right now for essential reasons – you’ll need to be clued up about COVID-19 PCR tests for travel. Rules and regulations surrounding travel are constantly changing, and can seem a little daunting. But we’re here to explain everything you need to know about COVID-19 PCR tests for travel, from what types of tests are available to where to get a test.

Although the UK is still in lockdown, so holidays aren’t allowed, you may need to travel right now for work or other essential reasons. On your return, you will need proof of a negative COVID test before departure to the UK, taken up to 72 hours before flying. You’ll also need to purchase two further COVID tests on days 2 and 8 of your mandatory self-isolation back in the UK. Also be aware that from 15 February, hotel quarantine on arrival applies for Brits returning from 33 red-list countries.

What types of COVID tests are available for travel?

There are three main types of COVID tests available for those who need to travel:

  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests
  • Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) tests
  • Lateral Flow Device (LFD) antigen tests

PCR tests are considered the most reliable COVID-19 tests. NAAT (Nucleic Acid Amplification) tests work in the same way as PCR tests. A swab is taken from the top of the nostrils or the back of the throat and sent to a laboratory for processing. These tests detect the RNA (ribonucleic acid) – or genetic material – of a virus and the process can take several hours, which is why it can take a few days to get your results. These tests are typically highly accurate.

Recently, Transcription-Mediated Amplification (TMA) tests have also been accepted by some countries such as Spain. This type of test is faster and cheaper than a PCR test, but works in a similar way and is highly accurate.

LFD tests work in a similar way to a pregnancy test and detect proteins in the coronavirus. They’re not as accurate as PCR tests and are normally used in people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms. You’ll usually get your test results within 30 minutes.

LAMP tests give results in a couple of hours and also use a swab from the nose or throat. False positives and negatives have been reported, and this type of test is not considered to be as accurate as a PCR test. Samples can be processed on-site and are analysed to confirm the presence or not of SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

You may also hear people speaking about antigen tests. These are a type of diagnostic test that gives very fast results – often in 30 minutes – but they can give false positives and are not typically as reliable as a PCR test.

The main difference between these types of tests is the cost and the time taken to get your results. However, it’s important to check what type of test is required by your destination, as every country has different requirements. Some countries have a list of accepted test providers, so make sure you check this out before planning your trip.

Which destinations require a test on arrival?

Countries around the world have their own entry requirements in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The below list shares some destinations popular with UK travellers, but it is not exhaustive. As rules and restrictions can change at any time, be sure to check official government advice prior to your travel to ensure you have all the information you need.

Note the difference between a ‘departure test’ and an ‘arrival test’. Many countries, including the UK, Spain and France, require you to obtain a negative COVID test result up to 72 hours before your departure. Some, like Greece, also require an extra, rapid COVID test on arrival.

Spain

Until 16 February 2021, you cannot enter Spain unless you are a Spanish national or legally resident in the country. If this applies to you, you must present a negative PCR, TMA, or LAMP test taken no more than 72 hours prior to arrival (this excludes children under 6 years old).

If you’re transiting through a Spanish airport on a flight from the UK, you can do so provided you present a negative PCR, TNA or LAMP test result taken no more than 72 hours prior to arrival into Spain.

48 hours prior to travel, you must fill out and sign an online Health Control Form, which provides your contact information, details of any known exposure to COVID-19 and confirmation you’re able to provide evidence of a negative PCR test, TMA or LAMP test result, taken no more than 72 hours prior to arrival. On completion of the form, you’ll be issued a QR code which you must show (in electronic or hard copy format) to airport health controls on arrival. All passengers will also undergo a visual health assessment and temperature check on arrival.

Always ensure you check the latest travel rules and guidance for Spain with the FCDO prior to travel.

USA

British nationals cannot currently enter the USA if they have been in the UK, Ireland, Schengen zone, Iran, Brazil, China or South Africa within the previous 14 days.

If you are eligible for entry, you must have a negative pre-departure test result (NAAT or antigen) or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 provided by a licensed health care provider. On arrival in the USA you must self-isolate for at least 7 days, and take a COVID-19 test three to five days after your arrival.

Always ensure you check the latest travel rules and guidance for the USA with the FCDO prior to travel.

France

From 31 January 2021, France restricted travel from non-EU countries. Travel is only permitted for essential reasons, and this applies to all air, car, ferry and train passengers.

If you fall into one of the following categories, you can enter France:

  • French nationals and nationals of the European area, and their spouses and children
  • British and/or third country nationals who are either habitually resident in France, the European Union, or the European area, or who must travel for essential reasons.

You can find a list of accepted essential reasons for travel on the French Embassy London’s website.

All travellers entering France, including children aged 11 and over, will need to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result, carried out within 72 hours of departure. You must also self-isolate for 7 days on arrival in France, and then take another PCR test. France has a list of accepted providers for PCR tests for those entering the country – and you can also find a list of Test to Release for international providers here.

Anyone arriving from the UK must complete a ‘sworn statement’ form which self-certifies that you’re not suffering from coronavirus symptoms and have not been in contact with any confirmed cases in the preceding fortnight. You’ll also need to sign a ‘travel certificate’ which confirms your reasons for travel. You can find both these forms on the French government’s website.

Always ensure you check the latest travel rules and guidance for France with the FCDO prior to travel.

Greece

UK nationals permanently resident in the UK (or another EU state, or a specific list of countries found here) can currently enter Greece, although you still should only be travelling for essential reasons. You’ll need to fill out a Passenger Locator Form at least 24 hours before travel.

You must provide proof of a negative PCR test result, taken within 72 hours of your arrival into the country. Upon arrival you will be asked to undergo a rapid test for COVID-19. If your test result is negative, you will need to self-isolate for 7 days. A positive test result means you must self-isolate for at least 14 days. In both cases, you’ll need to take another PCR test at the end of your self-isolation period.

Always ensure you check the latest travel rules and guidance for Greece with the FCDO prior to travel.

Italy

Until 5 March 2021, you can only enter Italy if you have official residency or if absolutely necessary. If you’re travelling for essential reasons you must declare these in writing. Before you travel, you need to download and complete a self-declaration form from the Ministry of the Interior.

You’ll need to present your airline with a negative rapid antigen or molecular swab test, taken no more than 72 hours before entering the country. You must also take a test within 48 hours of entry to Italy – those arriving from the UK will take this test at the airport.

Whatever your result, all arrivals from the UK must report to the local health authorities on arrival and self-isolate for 14 days.

Always ensure you check the latest travel rules and guidance for Italy with the FCDO prior to travel.

How long before travelling should I get a test?

For most destinations requiring evidence of a negative test for entry, including the UK, you must take your COVID-19 test in the 72 hours (3 days) before departure. For some airport departures and destinations, this may be extended to 96 hours. Tests taken earlier than this may be rejected, and you may be refused travel, or even fined. For example, if your flight departs on Thursday, you should be tested on the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday before your departure. It’s important to book your test in good time, particularly for PCR tests, as the results could take a day or two to come back.

If your test results come back positive, you must not travel, and should self-isolate for the required period, currently 10 days in the UK. This includes the day you receive your test results and the next 10 full days. Everybody in your household needs to isolate too, even if their test was negative or they don’t have symptoms.

Where can I get a test?

Some countries, like France, have a list of accredited test providers and if you intend to travel, you must take a test with one of these providers. Tests from other providers will not be accepted.

If your destination hasn’t provided a list of accredited providers, make sure you check the country’s requirements for testing. Some countries allow you to purchase a home test – this will either be an LFD test which gives you immediate results, or, more commonly, a PCR test which you’ll need to send back to the lab the same day for analysis. Other countries, such as Dubai, stipulate that you must take a test at a registered test facility.

You should always check that the clinic you choose is accredited by UKAS (the national accreditation body for the UK), that the test will be accepted by your destination, and that you’ll receive a ‘fit to fly’ certificate if your results are negative. Some test providers will charge extra for this.

You cannot get a free test through the NHS if it is for travel.

We’ve gathered together some of the most affordable options for testing before departure in the UK:

ProviderLocationsResultsCostNeed to know
Drive-through centresAirports nationwideNext dayFrom £60-80Demand is high
CollinsonMajor airports in England, the O2 ArenaSame day or up to 48 hoursFrom £40-99High demand for pre departure LAMP tests
BootsOver 100 stores nationwideWithin 48 hoursFrom £120Not suitable for children under 13
‘Fit to fly’ certificate included
Airport hotelsSofitel Hotel (Heathrow)Next dayFree if you book a room, (£69 per additional test)Need to book a room
Jet2WorldwideCheck with providerDiscount code provided 4 weeks before travelMay not be valid for all destinations
Tui & WizzWorldwideCheck with providerFrom £70 Home-testing kit, so may not be accepted by all destinations

How much does the test cost?

Costs for tests range from £60 to over £100, depending on the type of test and the provider. Costs can also vary depending on where in the UK you live. For example, test centres in Scotland tend to charge slightly more than those in London.

Some countries, such as Italy and Dubai, offer free PCR tests on arrival. However, you’ll need to quarantine until you get results. If you test positive, this means spending most (or all) of your trip in self-isolation, which may not be practical if you’re travelling for work.

How long do the results take?

It can take a few days to get your results for a PCR test, as your sample is sent to a lab for analysis.

A LAMP test or antigen test can give you results within 90 minutes.

Some home testing kits, such as antigen tests, provide results within 30 minutes, but these results are not as reliable as PCR tests, and may not be accepted by some destinations.

When should I get a test?

This depends on whether your destination requires a PCR test, which usually give results within 24 hours but can take a day or two longer, or a rapid LAMP test or similar. Research a test provider in advance, and take their advice on when you should book.

If you need a PCR test result within 72 hours of departure, you’ll probably want to take the test on day three before departure. Ask the test provider for their advice on timings.

Be aware that NHS COVID tests are not to be used for travel, and that negative test results (taken within 72 hours of departure) are compulsory for entry back to the UK. If you travel directly to England on a Friday, for example, you must take the test on the Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

When you’re isolating on your arrival back in the UK, you will also need to purchase a test package, including a COVID test to take on days two and eight of your quarantine (which will be in a hotel if you’re returning from a red-list country).

What do the test results tell me?

LFD home tests

With an LFD home test, a negative result means you were not infectious at the time the test was taken. However, this is not a guarantee that you do not have coronavirus.

A positive result means you are currently infected with coronavirus. You’ll normally need to report your test results to the NHS, and they will provide you with next steps to take. You may need to take a PCR test to confirm your positive result, and you’ll need to follow the rules for self-isolating.

PCR tests and LAMP tests

You will normally receive your results via text or email. A negative result means the test did not find signs of coronavirus. However, if a family member or someone you live with tests positive, you will need to self-isolate, and you must not travel.

A positive test result means it is likely you had coronavirus when the test was carried out. You and all the members of your household must self-isolate immediately for 10 days (this includes the day you had the test, and the next 10 full days).

If your sample could not be read, you should book another test as soon as possible. If your results are delayed or you need to take a second test, it may be possible for your airline or accommodation provider to move your booking, although they’re not legally obliged to do so. Your travel insurance may cover you in this situation, unless you are travelling to a country that the FCDO has advised against.

We know that all the guidance and regulations surrounding travel and PCR tests right now can seem a little overwhelming. Hopefully, our guide has covered everything you need to know to plan your trip and travel safely. If you do have to travel for essential reasons, don’t forget to pack a supply of masks and hand sanitizer, and ensure you have travel insurance for your trip. Make sure you check the latest advice from the FCDO before you head to the airport too.

If your flight is cancelled due to COVID, we’ve created this handy article that guides you through what will happen. If you have any questions about COVID that we haven’t answered here, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a good place to find answers.

Discover where you can 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.

FAQs

Can I get a free test through the NHS for travel?

No, you cannot get a free test with the NHS for travel. These tests are for those with coronavirus symptoms or priority groups, such as care workers. You must book a test with a private provider if you require to show evidence of a negative test result upon arrival at your destination.

Can I go on holiday right now?

No, you can’t currently travel unless it is for essential reasons. The UK is currently in lockdown. Always check the latest government news and advice before making travel plans.

What if I can’t pay for a test?

Unfortunately, most countries do require evidence of a negative test result before arrival, and the only way to get a test is through a private facility. Boots provide tests from £60, which is the most affordable option currently available.

Do I need to quarantine when I get back to the UK?

Yes. All UK arrivals need to self-isolate for 10 days, at home or in a hotel quarantine (costing £1,750) if you’re returning from a red-list country. There are steep fines for anyone that doesn’t comply and you also need a negative COVID test, taken up to 72 hours before departure, to enter the UK border. You’ll also have to take two further COVID tests during your isolation.

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