From Canada to Israel, nations are starting to ditch COVID-19 testing requirements for travelers, but in the US, there's no signs of changing the current policy. To enter the country by air, you must present either a negative test within one day of flying or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 within the past 90 days. The rule applies to everyone two years of age or older. All non-US citizens must also show proof of vaccination.
It’s important to note that the US test requirement covers one calendar day - not 24 hours - before departure. This means travelers can take a test any time during the day before their flight, regardless of departure time.
The testing regulation might seem like an impossible task—particularly for those who need to get tested in unfamiliar locales—but it doesn't have to be. If you're planning to travel sometime soon, mapping out a plan and getting tested within one day of your flight should be an easily-navigable part of your travel itinerary.
"The whole thing is not a big deal," says Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of the luxury travel agency SmartFlyer. When the US enacted a testing rule in 2020, Holtz notes that testing options were harder to find. Today, they're ubiquitous.
"Even if a client is hiking the Himalayas, they can get their test done in a day," he says.
Here's everything you need to know about navigating the testing requirement.
What kind of test do I need?
All travelers entering the United States must take a SARS-CoV-2 viral test, which includes antigen and nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs). The most common NAAT is a PCR test, the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19. If you're uncertain whether or not the US will accept your test, check the CDC's website for confirmation.
Different PCR tests yield different wait times, ranging from fifteen minutes to several days. With a tight one-day turnaround, look for a rapid PCR test, which delivers results within the appropriate window.
For travelers taking a rapid at-home antigen test, remember to follow the CDC's guidelines: a telehealth professional must be able to confirm your identity, observe the test, and authenticate the result. Tests without a proctor will not be accepted.
Abbot BinaxNOW offers rapid at-home tests with two per pack, including a telehealth service, for $69.99. Flowflex and Detect sell the telehealth service separately. For Americans, it's also possible to use the free iHealth tests distributed by the government. (Tests can be ordered through COVIDTests.org and are limited to eight per address). A virtual session with an iHealth test proctor costs $24.99. Visit the associated websites to order kits and arrange an appointment.
Regardless of what test you use, all travelers must obtain documentation of the result before boarding a US-bound flight. This may come as a QR code, text, email, or piece of paper. If you recently recovered from COVID-19, you can show your positive COVID-19 test result on a sample taken no more than 90 days before departure, plus a letter from a licensed healthcare provider clearing you for travel.
How do I get a COVID-19 test while traveling outside the US?
There are four locations to consider when getting tested abroad.
Some hotels provide COVID-19 tests
The first place to check is at the hotel or resort where you're staying. "A lot of hotels are set up to handle testing," says Holtz. Call ahead or check the hotel's website to see if you can schedule an on-site appointment. Next, ensure the test meets US requirements. If the hotel doesn't provide testing, the concierge or front desk staff should be able to direct you to the nearest testing facility.
Visit a local pharmacy
For those who aren't staying at a hotel, head to a local pharmacy. Although not all pharmacies provide on-site testing, the employees should also be able to point you toward an accessible medical clinic or testing site.
Check if your airport provides testing
You'll also find coronavirus testing at most international airports. Visit your airport's website to find testing locations, operating hours, test costs, and the length of time to receive results. On a recent trip through Florence, Holtz used a testing facility in the airport parking lot and received his results within twenty minutes.
Take an at-home test
Traveling with an at-home test kit is the best way to offer anxious travelers peace of mind. Getting tested at your vacation rental—at a time you choose and in your preferred language—can be a soothing antidote to long lines at foreign pharmacies or airports. But this only works if you have a strong WiFi connection, cell service, and the proper device to support a telehealth video conference. Some providers, including iHealth, won't administer tests on cell phones or tablets, so check testing requirements before traveling and bring a laptop if needed.
Other tips for finding a test
Cut down search time for a testing location by consulting the internet. Test for Travel, an international COVID-19 testing database with an easy-to-use interface, offers information on global requirements, testing locations, available test types, and processing time.
"We have about 15,000 locations listed in around 105 countries right now," says Test for Travel's founder and CEO, Julien de Bats. The website only shows locations that process tests in 72 hours or less and indicates if the site offers same-day, next-day, or 15-minute test results. Julien says that rapid PCR tests aren't as widely available internationally as in the US, making antigen tests the easiest way to fulfill the one-day testing requirement.
When should I book my test?
Booking a COVID-19 test is as vital to the trip-planning process as booking a hotel room. "It's an addition to your travel checklist," says de Bats. Finding a clinic that meets the one-day rule can be complicated, and getting tested or receiving results on weekends or holidays might leave you with few options. Testing prices can range from tens to hundreds of dollars, too, and if you weigh the possibilities, you'll likely save money.
The bottom line? Make a plan now and worry less later. Don't wait until the last moment and assume everything will work out.
Once you've identified how and where you're getting tested, figure out the logistics. For in-person testing, map out how you'll get to the site. For at-home testing with a telehealth professional, ensure you have access to reliable cell service or WiFi. If your testing site doesn't require appointments, factor in plenty of time for a visit, and consider getting there as early as possible within the one-day testing limit. It's better to prepare for the worst and be surprised by a frictionless experience.
What if I don't receive my results before I fly?
"Start by contacting the laboratory or location where you got tested," recommends de Bats. Then, if your results still aren't ready, contact your airline. Most airlines can assist by finding you an alternative testing option, changing your departure date, or booking a flight to a location where you can get tested before entering the United States. Traveling with an approved at-home test kit can alleviate these concerns and provide backup if testing doesn't go as planned.
For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.