Going on vacation soon? Make sure you have the right COVID-19 test

Dec 1, 2021

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Antigen test. Rapid test. PCR test. RT-PCR test. Antibody test. If you’ve taken a COVID-19 test during the pandemic, you might have been bewildered by the sheer number of options.

There are several names for COVID-19 tests, and keeping track of which one you need for travel can seem daunting. But there are only two types of tests: diagnostic tests, which check to see if you have an active COVID-19 infection and antibody tests, which check antibodies in your immune system produced in response to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Not all COVID-19 tests are equal, however. Different types of tests have varying levels of accuracy and turnaround times.

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Testing is much more accessible than it was earlier on in the pandemic. But depending on where you want to go, a negative COVID-19 test result might be required, particularly if you’re not vaccinated or are traveling with unvaccinated children. And now, pre-travel testing is even more critical as a result of the latest COVID-19 variant.

Additionally, the United States still requires all travelers flying into the country from abroad to provide a negative COVID-19 test result within three days before departure. And unvaccinated travelers now must show a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than one day before departure, significantly shrinking the time window for testing.

So, which test do you need? And what’s the difference between all the different tests? Here’s what to look for before your next appointment to ensure you have the correct COVID-19 test for travel.

Diagnostic tests

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing. (Photo by ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP/Getty Images)

Also known as: Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR), Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT), Real-Time Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification (RT-LAMP), diagnostic test, viral test, molecular test, rapid test
How the sample is collected: Nasal or nasopharyngeal swab, saliva
Turnaround time: It can be as little as 15 minutes for a rapid antigen test or an hour for rapid PCR tests. PCR tests generally come back within 72 hours

PCR tests

The PCR test (polymerase chain reaction) detects active COVID-19 infections and is the most common NAAT test.

These are the most reliable tests for detecting active COVID-19 infections and are considered the current “gold standard” of tests. Several countries allow entry with a negative rapid antigen test (more on that below), but what you’ll usually need for travel is a PCR test.

PCR tests are typically easy to find, as several major drugstores, including CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, offer PCR testing at no additional cost if using insurance. Turnaround times for results can vary by chain and location, but are generally between one and seven days.

However, some urgent care facilities have introduced “rapid PCR tests.” These are standard PCR tests with expedited turnaround times, where you can receive your results in as few as 30 minutes. That said, if you’re looking for a faster way to get a PCR test, it’ll cost you. Facilities offering rapid tests generally bill you the total amount, and it typically isn’t covered by insurance.

Countries that require a PCR test for entry include Anguilla (RT-PCR), Antigua and Barbuda (RT-PCR), St. Martin, Ireland (RT-PCR), Paraguay (RT-PCR or NAAT) and Bonaire (PCR or NAAT test).

Antigen tests

Rapid antigen tests check for proteins on the virus’s surface. These tests are popular for their quick turnaround times, but the level of accuracy can be lower than a PCR test.

A growing number of U.S. airports and airlines offer rapid COVID-19 testing to passengers or travelers on specific flights or heading to particular destinations. Several hotels, hoping to comply with the U.S. testing mandate, have also started to offer rapid tests on site.

Countries that allow travelers to enter with a negative rapid, or antigen, test include the United States, the British Virgin Islands, Martinique, Austria and Croatia.

At-home tests

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expanded the testing program for international travel to the United States earlier this spring, allowing airlines to accept at-home instant tests that include remote supervision.

That’s good news for U.S.-bound travelers who may not have many testing options at their location abroad. Travelers flying to the U.S. can use a self-test (sometimes called home test if it’s a NAAT or antigen test with Emergency Use Authorization [EUA] from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The test must also have a telehealth service that provides real-time supervision.

Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Home Test is CDC-approved for travel to the U.S. Each test comes with two tests per box, and the company says to swab yourself twice within three days, with at least 36 hours between. There’s a second Abbott rapid test that you can buy at the drugstore, but it isn’t proctored and can’t be used for travel. Another at-home test, Amazon’s COVID-19 Test Collection Kit DTC, has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA.

Antibody tests

(Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Also known as: Serological test, serology, blood test, serology test
How the sample is collected: Blood test
Turnaround time: Can be same-day or up to three days

Antibody tests are blood tests that can identify if a previous COVID-19 infection caused your immune system to produce COVID-19 antibodies. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it shouldn’t be used to diagnose an active infection.

Several countries, including Greece, Iceland and French Polynesia, allow visitors who have proof of a previous infection with a confirmed antibody test.

Featured photo by Aimur Kytt/Getty Images

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