Getting a coronavirus test for travel sounds great — but in many places, it’s nearly impossible

Jul 13, 2020

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The good news for those of us in the U.S. is that even though we really aren’t included in any international “travel bubbles” right now, there are still a number of countries we can visit if we pack a negative coronavirus test taken within the last 72 hours.

In fact, that’s precisely how TPG’s founder and CEO, Brian Kelly, recently pulled off a weekend getaway to Antigua with no quarantine.

But before you assume you’ll be able to replicate that success story, there are a few things to consider.

Namely, there’s the reality that, though we’re months into this pandemic, it’s still almost impossible to quickly get a coronavirus test (and the results) within 72 hours in many parts of the country — especially if you’re getting the test for reasons other than being symptomatic. Even if you can find somewhere to give you the test when you want it, that doesn’t mean the lab that processes the test will be able to get you the results when you need them.

That means summer travel beyond the borders of your home state could be incredibly difficult.

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Destinations requiring negative coronavirus test results

Hawaii, for example, may allow you to enter without quarantine this summer if you bring a negative COVID-19 test completed within 72 hours of travel. (Though the specific implementation date is now under question.) Like most destinations, Hawaii has said it will require a PCR test as proof of negative infection status.

Related: Do you need a negative coronavirus test to fly?

As more states and countries say they’ll allow visitors to enter without quarantine if — and only if — they bring negative coronavirus test results completed within 72 hours before a trip, I was curious about how feasible that really is for Americans across the country.

Securing a coronavirus test isn’t always easy

Here’s the bad news. The odds that you can get a PCR coronavirus test and results timed perfectly within 72 hours of travel ranges from not great to downright impossible, depending on where you are.

Even if you can get a test when you want it, the wait time for results has been creeping upwards, even in places where it was a one- or two-day wait just a few weeks ago. Now, three to five days is common if you’re lucky, and it can drag on longer than two weeks in areas experiencing a surge in cases and demand.

Personally, I live in Texas outside Houston. In my quest to find somewhere — anywhere — to provide a PCR coronavirus test with results available within 72 hours, I found a number of possibilities. None of them were promising.

Related: Best Texas road trips from Houston

Facilities were out of tests, there were warnings of lines that form early and drag on for hours with results that can take a couple of weeks and other facilities only testing symptomatic patients. Clinics are running out of tests and rationing what they have on hand. Then, once you get a test, you can forget about results within 72 hours. You’ll be lucky if you have them within a week.

To give you an accurate picture, here are recently posted waits at some urgent care centers in Texas, which really are some of the easiest places to get tested at the moment.

Related: Countries open to U.S. visitors

Screenshot courtesy of Texas Med Clinic
Screenshot courtesy of Texas Med Clinic.

Of all the possible outcomes I was given at the places I contacted, no one said, “Yes, we can test you for travel purposes and provide rapid results.”

The closest I got to that result was an urgent care clinic that would take an appointment for the next day and test you for any reason — but the results, I’m told, typically take more than a week or two to come in.

If I truly needed a test right now with results within 72 hours … I couldn’t find that in my area. If I kept calling places it’s possible I would have eventually found one that fit the bill. But with the area experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases, there’s also the ethical dilemma that taking a test you don’t truly need is potentially taking it away from someone who needs it more for true diagnostic purposes.

But this isn’t just a Texas problem. I heard similar reports of rapid testing still being a real challenge from people in Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Upstate New York; and some parts of Florida and Idaho.

Related: State-by-state guide to reopening 

On the flip side, I’ve heard a few reports that some areas have an abundance of rapid tests. In those areas, you can easily drive up, take a test and have the results delivered in an hour or so. Those reports I received were from parts of California (such as San Francisco and Napa); Miami, Florida; New York City and nearby suburbs; Connecticut and, frankly, throughout much of the Northeast. That said, even my contacts in New York City who said it was easy to get quick results a few weeks ago are now facing longer waits as testing demand increases.

What to do if you need a coronavirus test for travel

CVS is rolling out nationwide testing via its drive-thru window, so that may be a future solution to widespread rapid testing.

In fact, it’s said that Hawaii is in talks with CVS as a part of its reopening plan, but the CVS testing is still in a rollout phase. While the program is up and running in some places, many locations still don’t yet have drive-thru testing available. There are other complications, too. Testing is often restricted to those who are actively symptomatic, and many of the sites use a process that quotes taking five to seven days to deliver results.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now

If you want to research the feasibility of getting a coronavirus test for travel in your area, you’ll want to do an online search for places that offer rapid coronavirus tests and then follow up with a phone call to confirm that information is current. You’ll likely need to ask if they offer a PCR test with rapid results that’s available to a nonsymptomatic person.

Often, you’ll have the best success getting tested first thing in the morning if you line up in person. Or, if you’re booking an appointment for a future date at a pharmacy like CVS, book when the window opens, which might be just after midnight or first thing in the morning.

Whenever possible, register to receive your results online. Quest Diagnostics, for example, can even have results delivered to your Apple Health app.

Your best bet in some locations may simply be to get the test and then quarantine until results arrive, assuming where you’re traveling allows you to enter without results. Obviously, if your vacation is brief, you may spend all of it in your hotel room. But if you’re going somewhere for a month or so, you can prepare to spend anywhere from the first few days to a week or more sitting it out waiting for your test results to arrive.

Depending on where you are, and whether the area is experiencing an outbreak, getting a coronavirus test for travel with rapid results has the potential to be very simple — or next to impossible.

If I hoped to head to Hawaii with my family when it allows travelers who test negative within 72 hours to visit without a quarantine, I’m not certain that would even be possible for us right now.

Featured image by Octavio Jones / Stringer / Getty Images

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