Getting a coronavirus test for travel is getting easier — but isn’t yet a guarantee

Aug 28, 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.

That’s precisely how TPG’s founder and CEO, Brian Kelly, pulled off a weekend getaway to Antigua with no quarantine and a trip to Croatia, also without quarantine.

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

Namely, there’s the reality that, while things seem to be improving on the whole, it’s still almost impossible to quickly get a coronavirus test (and the results) within 72 hours in some 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 fall travel beyond the borders of your home state could be difficult for some.

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Destinations requiring negative coronavirus test results

Alaska allows you to enter without quarantine if you bring a negative COVID-19 test completed within 72 hours of travel. Like most destinations, Alaska 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 (or sometimes as few as 48 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 great to almost impossible, depending on where you are and whether that area is experiencing a surge of cases and testing demand.

There’s also the issue that not everywhere will test you if you aren’t symptomatic. For example, CVS has been expanding drive-thru testing in many areas, but not all will test someone who reports no symptoms or high-risk exposure.

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 in June and July to find somewhere — anywhere — to provide a PCR coronavirus test with results available within 72 hours, I found virtually no real options.

Related: The 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 receiving results within 72 hours. You’ll be lucky if you have them within a week. One of the tests I took this summer simply got lost and results never came.

To give you an accurate picture of what was happening as Texas was experiencing a case and testing surge, here were June posted waits at some urgent care centers in Texas, which were some of the easiest places to get tested.

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.”

But now, in late-August, things are better in this area. My daughter who was under the weather recently got (negative) PCR nasal swab results within 24 hours, and some clinics I called said results for PCR tests are taking about 48 hours on average.

But there are reports of quick-turnaround testing still being a real challenge from people in some locations such as Tampa, Chicago and Upstate New York. Even in New York City, your results can vary wildly. Some people have had to wait four or five days for test results — while others received results within 24 hours. The lab that processes the test makes a world of difference in the time from test to results.

Kelly, for example, said he received the results from a PCR nasal swab test taken at NYU Langone Health in approximately 10 hours. There was no copay, either, though you will need a doctor to order the test.

It was an “ultra-smooth operation,” he said, with no wait for his test. His results were delivered through the NYU Langone Health app

Related: State-by-state guide to reopening 

In areas with an abundance of rapid tests, 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) Connecticut and, frankly, throughout much of the Northeast.

What to do if you need a coronavirus test for travel

CVS is rolling out nationwide testing via its drive-thru window, though as mentioned, you must report being symptomatic or high risk to get a test in certain areas. While Hawaii has delayed its reopening, it’s worth knowing the state has discussed CVS playing a role in its testing plan when it does reopen.

Walgreens is also offering testing that has a quick turnaround in some areas, and in taking the screening questionnaire I qualified for the test without symptoms having only checked yes to “live in an area with community coronavirus spread” — so that may be an option for some travelers.

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 PCR nasal swab tests with rapid results are available for nonsymptomatic people.

A newer resource that may help is the website that seems to rely on user-generated reports of testing locations and turnaround times.

If you’re having trouble securing testing in your area, you’ll probably 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.

Rapid testing

Nothing about COVID is simple, including the tests.

In addition to the tests that go out to a lab for processing, there are also rapid tests that don’t all go out to labs that can be run within 15 minutes. I recently took one of these rapid nasal swab tests before travel, though it wasn’t required by the destination, so it was OK that it wasn’t a PCR test.

This type of rapid test likely won’t work if a PCR test is required by the destination. Since I was just doing this for my own peace of mind, I decided I’d rather have a potentially less-accurate test with results in hand, than await results from a more accurate test that may not come back until my trip was over.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Mail-in testing

There are also tests you conduct yourself at home and mail in for results. One such provider is Everlywell, which conducts RT-PCR tests (a specific kind of molecular PCR test) that may work for travel in some cases. There are reports in the TPG Lounge that these results have been accepted for some international travel.

The company estimates you’ll receive your kit within two to five business days of placing your order, and results are usually available within 72 hours of the lab receiving your sample … though also factor in the shipping time. This may not work for a guaranteed 72-hour turnaround, but could shorten your quarantine time in certain destinations.

There’s also the PCR test from Pixel by LabCorp. This test states it has an average turnaround time of one or two days from when your sample is received at the lab. Samples are processed seven days per week.

New coronavirus tests may be available soon

In late August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave an emergency-use authorization to Abbott for a new 15-minute test that may cost as little as $5. This test is not a PCR test, but its accuracy could still be improved over the current rapid testing model and could be scaled up enough for it to play a role in future travel, as it’s set to roll out this fall.

Related: The 8 best destinations to visit in September

Bottom line

In some situations, it is now very possible to get PCR COVID-19 test results within 72 hours, but that’s just not always the case.

Depending on where you live, your best bet may simply be to get the test and then quarantine until your results arrive, assuming you’re allowed to enter your destination without results. Obviously, if your vacation is brief, you may spend it all in your hotel room. But, if you’re traveling somewhere for a month or longer, you can prepare to spend anywhere from the first few days to a week or more waiting for your test results to arrive. You also need to be prepared for your results to be positive — and that’s where travel insurance may come into play.

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 still next to impossible, though testing and turnaround times are generally improving across the U.S.

Featured image by CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images

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