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COVID tests for travel: top tips from testing experts

Latest: From 24 October, day two PCR tests will be replaced with a cheaper lateral flow test.

Travel is opening up, but many countries require proof of a negative COVID-19 test on arrival – including the UK. Here, we explain everything you need to know about COVID tests for travel, from what types of tests are available to where to get a test, both for departing from and arriving back in the UK.

This page was last updated on 15 October 2021. To our knowledge, the information on this page was correct at the time of publication.

Сheaper and quicker lateral flow tests to replace PCRs for vaccinated travellers from non-red list countries

From 24 October, day two PCR tests will be replaced with a cheaper lateral flow test. Eligible travellers can book their lateral flow test upon arrival into the UK, which can be done at testing centres located in some airports. Travellers will also be able to book lateral flow tests from private providers. An approved list of these will go live on the gov.uk website on October 22.

From 4 October, the travel rules for England are simplified removing the green and amber categories, and leaving only one red list. Fully vaccinated arrivals into England from non-red list country are no longer need a pre-departure COVID test.

*‘Fully vaccinated’ means that it’s been at least 14 days since the second dose of your vaccination against COVID-19.

How do I show my test result?

Your test result can be shown either on a printed document, a text message or an email, which will be sent to you by the test supplier after you register your result online. If you don’t have it available at the airport before flying back to the UK, you might not be able to board the plane, or you could be fined £500 on arrival back in England.

What COVID tests do I need for travelling?

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

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) 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.

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

Lateral Flow Device (LFD) antigen tests

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.

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.

Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) tests

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.

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.

The UK borders accept PCR, LAMP and antigen tests, as long as they meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity and ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. Ask your test provider to prove that the tests meet these standards.

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 travelling, 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

Can I use NHS COVID tests for travel?

No, the free NHS tests cannot be used for travel, so you have to book a test from a private provider. The UK government has collected a list of registered test providers. You should pre-book and register online your necessary COVID tests before going abroad, so they’re ready for you to use when you get home.

How much do COVID tests for travel cost?

The cost of COVID tests for travel back to the UK varies greatly. Some offer an in-house service at a clinic, others post you a swab test to do from home. Pre-departure antigen tests cost upwards of £29 each, whereas you should expect to pay at least £60 per person for day two PCR tests. Always use a government-approved COVID travel test provider.

Where can I get a test?

Some countries have a list of accredited test providers and if you intend to travel, you must take a test with one of these providers. If your destination hasn’t provided a list of accredited providers, make sure you check its requirements for testing. Some countries (including the UK) allow you to purchase a home test – this will either be an LFD test which gives you immediate results or a PCR test that you’ll need to send back to the lab the same day for analysis. Other countries 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.

We’ve gathered together some of the most affordable options for COVID tests for travel in the UK:

ProviderLocationsResultsCostNeed to know
Drive-through centresAirports nationwideNext dayFrom £60-80Demand is high
Let’s Get CheckedAt-home testingWithin 24-72 hours From £79
(£55.30 with 30% off Skyscanner discount)
Use the discount code ‘SKYSCANNER’ at online check-out
CollinsonMajor airports in England, the O2 ArenaSame-day or up to 48 hoursFrom £40Timings dependent on test type, Fit to Fly certificate included
BootsOver 100 stores nationwideWithin 48 hoursFrom £85Not 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 providerFrom £75. Discount code provided 4 weeks before travelMay not be valid for all destinations
Tui & WizzWorldwideCheck with providerFrom £60 for a PCR test or £20 for a lateral flow testLateral flow tests may not be accepted by all 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.

What happens if I test positive?

If you test positive for COVID-19 before your departure from the UK, then you must not travel to the airport – stay at home and quarantine for 10 days.

If your pre-departure COVID test, taken up to 72 hours before returning to the UK, comes back positive, you can’t board your plane back to the UK. You’ll have to extend your stay in your holiday accommodation and quarantine according to that destination’s rules.

If you test positive for COVID-19 on your day two or day eight test after arriving back in the UK, you must self-isolate at home for 10 days from the day your test comes back positive.

Which destinations require a COVID test for entry?

Most countries require a full vaccination against COVID-19, proof of a negative COVID test on arrival, or both.

Some countries offer free PCR tests on arrival, so check in advance whether this applies in your destination. However, you’ll need to quarantine until you get results. If you test positive, you’ll usually have to spend at least 10 days self-isolating.

The below list explains the COVID test for travel rules for some destinations popular with UK travellers. Check official government advice prior to your travel to ensure you have all the information you need.

Spain

On arrival in mainland Spain, UK travellers need to either prove they are fully vaccinated or provide a negative PCR test (no quarantine is required). However, the country is still on the UK’s amber list for travel, meaning that you are advised against travelling there on holiday and, if you don’t have a full vaccination, you must quarantine on your arrival back in the UK.

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. The USA is on the UK’s amber list.

If you are eligible for entry, all passengers above the age of two 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 before boarding their flight. On arrival in the USA, it is recommended that you self-isolate for at least seven days, and take a COVID 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

Unvaccinated (or not fully vaccinated) arrivals into France will only be permitted if they’re travelling for essential reasons. Travellers entering France without a full vaccination, including children aged 12 and over, also need to present a negative COVID PCR or antigen test result, carried out within 24 hours of departure, as well as an International Travel Certificate.

Travellers who are fully vaccinated do not need an essential reason to travel to France, or a negative COVID test result. They do not need to self-isolate on arrival. 

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

Greece

UK nationals can currently enter Greece, although it’s on the UK’s amber list. You’ll need to fill out a Passenger Locator Form at least 24 hours before travel.

You must provide either proof of a negative PCR test result taken within 72 hours of before arrival, proof of full vaccination, or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19 (evidence of a positive COVID-19 PCR test result taken between 30 to 180 days of your travel dates can be used). Upon arrival you may be asked to undergo a rapid test for COVID-19. If your test result is negative, you do not need to self-isolate. A positive test result means you must self-isolate for at least 10 days and 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

Italy is on the UK’s amber list. Before you travel, you complete an online digital form

Travellers to Italy who have been in the UK in the previous 14 days must present their airline with a negative rapid antigen or molecular swab test, taken no more than 48 hours before flying, then self-isolate for five days on arrival. At the end of the five-day isolation they must take a rapid antigenic or molecular swab test for COVID-19 and test negative for release. If you arrive without a negative test result, you will need to self-isolate for 10 days.

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

Getting a COVID test for travel: top tips from the COVID-19 testing experts at Collinson

  1. Find out what type of test you need for both departure and return trips. Most countries require one of two types of tests: a PCR test, which gets results back to you within 24 to 48 hours or a LAMP test, which is usually with you within 90 minutes. Antigen tests are quicker, with results typically returned in an hour.
  2. Check the timeframe for when you need to have the test done on the FCDO website, as a lot of countries require a negative COVID-19 test that’s no older than 72 hours, some as little as 48 hours.
  3. Check where you can get a test while at your destination to make sure you can return safely.
  4. Make sure to account for bank holidays, or anything else that could disrupt your window for taking your test and receiving the results within the required time.
  5. Be aware that testing for travel cannot be done through the NHS, and be sure to seek a test from a private provider that tests for travel specifically.

Travel has never seemed so complicated, and the rules around COVID tests for travel can get confusing. Hopefully, our guide has helped you to plan your trip and travel safely. If you do travel, don’t forget to pack a supply of masks and hand sanitiser, and ensure you have comprehensive travel insurance for your trip. Make sure you check the latest advice from the FCDO before you head to the airport, too.

COVID tests for travel FAQs

What is test to release?

If you’re not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and you return to the UK from an amber list country, you can end your 10-day quarantine early with the test-to-release scheme.

Can I go on holiday right now?

You can go on holiday to the countries on the UK’s green list, provided that those countries are accepting British tourists. While you’re advised against holidays to amber list countries, it’s entirely possible to travel there as long as you follow each destination’s entry requirements.

What if I can’t pay for a test?

Unfortunately, most countries require evidence of a negative test result before arrival, and the only way to get a test is through a private facility.

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

Not if you’re coming from a green list country. If you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to quarantine on arrival back from amber list countries. Unvaccinated (or not fully vaccinated) arrivals from amber list destinations must self-isolate for 10 days at home and arrivals from red list countries must quarantine for 10 days in a designated hotel (costing £2,285). 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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