Since the pandemic began in March 2020, PCR tests, antigen tests, and LAMP tests have all entered the common lexicon. But what’s the difference between all of the ways to test for COVID-19 and which one do you need to travel?
It’s a labyrinth of acronyms and technologies, but getting it wrong when traveling can be a real headache of denied boarding—or even being sent back to where you came from. We explain what they all are, when you need them and how to find them when you’re on the road.
What’s a PCR test and why do I need one?
A Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test looks for genetic material within a sample via a process that takes a matter of hours. For COVID-19 purposes, it amplifies the sample taken from your nose, throat or saliva to try to find genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. If the test finds that material, you have or have recently had the disease. The Cleveland Clinic has some further explanations of how PCR tests work.
PCR is usually officially called RT-PCR (RT for Reverse Transcription) and is one of a group of Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests (NAATs) that include a variety of methods—NEAR, TMA, LAMP, HDA, CRISPR, and SDA—all of which are explained well by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But all you really need to know for travel is what the relevant country you’re traveling to wants.
Use government websites to check for the latest entry requirements to your destination, or check out our Health Hub. In practice, you may need either a specific PCR or other kind of NAAT test to travel internationally. Many countries require a recent negative test in order to enter, with some even requiring testing for vaccinated travelers. Do check carefully, and either print out or screenshot the requirements so you can confirm that you’ve got it right with whoever is administering your pre-departure test.
Some countries require that tests be conducted by a healthcare provider like a doctor, nurse or pharmacist, while others are fine with the kits that let you swab yourself and mail a pack off to the lab for testing.
Some countries also require you to take another test after your arrival. You’ll want to check, but in this case the cheaper at-home, mail-off test kits might save you some money—although if you have to quarantine until you get the result it’s faster to get swabbed in a healthcare setting with its own lab.
How is a PCR test different from other tests: antigen, LAMP, TMA or others?
PCR tests differ from others in what they’re testing for and how they process the sample. In many cases, the actual sample extraction from your nose, throat or saliva can be the same—it’s what’s done with it that counts.
But besides the common PCR test, some destinations accept antigen tests, which look for specific molecules on the surface of the virus. These are much faster—it might take 15–30 minutes for most of them—and come either as home test kits or in a healthcare setting like a pharmacy, test centre or doctor’s office.
By and large, only antigen tests administered by a healthcare provider, with the written documentation you’ll receive, are considered valid for travel purposes. Bring the requirements of your destination country with you when you book the test to make sure.
As more destinations introduce vaccine passes to enter cultural sites and restaurants, some countries—like France and Spain—also accept recent antigen tests for the Digital COVID certificate.
Where can I get a PCR—or antigen—test for travel?
Whether you’re entering a country or returning home, you may have to provide written proof of a PCR or antigen test over the last 24, 48 or 72 hours. Note that this validity window for PCR and antigen tests may well be different based on where you’re going.
Antigen tests are widely available at pharmacies, with results within 15-30 minutes, but tests for travel purposes may incur charges—and tests for public health purposes may not give you the right paperwork for travel.
PCR tests are less widely available and take longer, so you’ll want to do some more planning. In many countries you should be able to get a PCR test with documentation for travel at a pharmacy—but be aware that in many places these are still quite expensive. If you’re struggling to find somewhere that provides tests, you could contact your airline and see if they can help.
Check your own country’s embassy in your destination, that country’s embassy in your own country, as well as the relevant airlines and airports to get more information on tests.
How do I get a PCR test abroad?
Since PCR tests take longer and require more equipment than an antigen test, it can be harder to find them. Given varying requirements that the test be conducted within one, two or three days, if you need a test to travel, it’s best to have one done in a healthcare setting (ideally at a lab) than using an at-home mail-in kit.
The US Department of Health & Human Services maintains a list of community-based testing sites in the US, while the UK government maintains a list for arrival tests that may also be useful for passengers departing the UK.
France, too, has a COVID test location database that allows you to search by location and to choose PCR, antigen or both. Germany does as well, broken out by region. Use a translation app or ask at your hotel for help.
For other countries, run a web search like “COVID travel test”, PCR or antigen, and the country name, but make sure you aren’t tripped up by private companies gaming the search results.
Can I take a PCR or antigen test at home for travel, or bring a test with me?
Most countries don’t accept self-administered tests for travel. That said, there are some options where you bring a test with you and book a video call with a healthcare professional who monitors you when taking the test—either then sent off to a lab for a PCR test or developed where you are for an antigen test.
On balance, with both PCR tests and antigen tests widely available in many locations, this seems like a lot of extra overhead, together with the possibility of tests going astray in the post.
For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.