I’m in London right now: Here’s how I’m navigating the UK COVID-19 testing requirements
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Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information on Aug. 6. It was originally published on Aug. 4, 2021.
Even the best-laid plans can go awry. That’s the main takeaway from my experience getting tested for my trip to London, after having a breakdown around midnight this morning because the provider for my day two test (one of the three tests required for Americans visiting the U.K. right now) fell through.
But let me start from the beginning.
As I reported earlier this week, fully vaccinated Americans are now freely able to visit London without having to quarantine for 10 days, which is the protocol for all “amber” listed countries, including the U.S. and EU countries.
The first thing to note is that the process of traveling from the U.S. to the U.K. and back requires three tests in total, all of which I booked before leaving. Despite this due diligence, none of the tests have gone smoothly thus far.
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All visitors, regardless of origin and destination, must present results of a negative COVID-19 test in order to fly to the U.K., to be verified by a check-in agent at the airport. Per the U.K. government, the test must be taken within three days of departure to England and can be either a PCR or antigen test.
Given that I only had a four-day period to perform this test, I figured my safest bet was to book a rapid results test in order to ensure I received the test results in time. On Wednesday, July 28, I booked the one remaining appointment I could find at any of the nearby CVS locations that offered such a test before my red-eye flight on Sunday, Aug. 1.
As I continued researching for my reporting and reached out to some U.K. contacts, I learned that an antigen test would only be accepted if it met at least 97% specificity and 80% sensitivity levels.
The next night, July 29, I call British Airways at 9:11 p.m. to inquire if an antigen test would in fact be accepted. A very friendly, yet seemingly confused BA agent initially tells me that no, she doesn’t believe the airline will accept a rapid results test.
When I inquire about the guidance from the U.K. government, she changes her answer from “no” to “I don’t know,” but tells me to plan on bringing a PCR test. I then call American Airlines (my flight is a Oneworld partner flight through AA for service on BA) and am told it will be a four-hour wait. When AA calls me back the next morning at 8 a.m. and I explain my query, the agent asks if I have looked at the U.K. travel requirements. I say yes — hence my question.
We then review the information together, and she concludes that an antigen test would, in fact, be accepted.
I’m still not convinced, so I attempt to contact CVS to verify whether their test meets the aforementioned performance requirements. Almost one hour and four phone calls later — including two with my local CVS MinuteClinic and two with the corporate MinuteClinic customer service number (the first one dropped after 31 minutes) — I am told that the CVS antigen test has 95% specificity, less than the 97% required.
Later that day, I book a PCR test for Friday as a backup at a Curative location near my apartment.
However, I am not confident this will resolve the issue entirely after being informed during the booking process that, while test results are usually revealed within one to two days, they cannot guarantee it due to a current high volume of tests. I confirm this is the case in person.
It is now Friday afternoon, and I have canceled my CVS test in lieu of the Curative one, but I am still concerned that I will not receive results in time for my flight.
I research options for PCR testing with a rapid turnaround and find various providers that will provide same-day or expedited testing results for an out-of-pocket cost ranging from $100-$275. The majority of private testing centers in the U.S. do not take insurance, although there are a few, such as Sameday Health, that accept some plans.
From browsing their website, it was unclear whether or not Sameday accepts my insurance (BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina), so I call BCBS to verify and am told they likely do not, but that I should double-check with the provider itself. I attempt to contact Sameday customer support via email and phone and fail to reach anyone.
At this point, I decide to book another backup test for Friday at 4:20 p.m., also a PCR test, with guaranteed results by 3 p.m. the next day. Since I’ve determined it would extremely unlikely to find a provider that accepts my insurance, I book the cheapest private place I can find, GenePace. I also use a discount code I find online, but the test total still ends up being $107.10 out of pocket.
On Friday at 4:20 p.m., I take my GenePace test that promises results within 16 hours or less, just in case. The next day, Saturday, July 31, I receive an email from GenePace notifying me that my test results are slightly delayed!
That afternoon around 3 p.m., I end up receiving the negative results of both tests within 10 minutes of each other.
Before departing for England, you must also book and pay for a PCR COVID-19 test via a U.K. government-approved provider, to be taken on or before day two of your arrival in England. I booked mine through Qured for $94.
Your arrival date is considered “day zero.” Since I arrived in London on Monday, I was expecting to receive my test by Wednesday at the latest.
Because I booked the test before I knew where I would be staying, I had it sent to a friend’s apartment, but it can also be sent to a hotel. After numerous emails and phone calls with the Qured Support Team to ensure my friend could accept the package on my behalf and that it would arrive in time, I contacted the Qured Support Team again to double check when exactly I should be expecting it.
I was told that it should be arriving by Wednesday. When I still hadn’t received word that my test had been dispatched, Qured told me via email that they incorrectly had my arrival date as Tuesday, Aug. 3, and that it was possible my test would not be arriving until Thursday, day three.
Even so, I choose not to worry since I had been told on the phone earlier that day that it would be arriving by Wednesday. Late Tuesday evening, around 9 p.m., I am notified via email that my test has shipped for delivery on Thursday.
Cue that breakdown I mentioned earlier.
I immediately contact my friend and colleague, TPG’s Emily McNutt, and she kindly sends me a place where I can book a day two test through Biogroup for $104.
I arrived a bit early and was seen right away.
The PCR test involved both a nasal and mouth swab, as shown below.
The next day, Aug.5, I got my negative test results.
All travelers entering the U.S., regardless of where they’re coming from, must present results of a negative COVID-19 test, PCR or rapid results, taken no more than three days before your flight to the U.S. departs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a “three-day period” rather than 72 hours to provide travelers more flexibility since you don’t have to worry about the exact time of your flight. For example, if your flight back to the U.S. departed on a Wednesday, you could board with a negative COVID-19 test taken Sunday or after.
Per Emily’s recommendation, I book a rapid “fit to fly” test at Boots (the U.K. equivalent of Walgreens) for $83.
Note that Boots offers a variety of COVID-19 testing services, so you could also do your day two test there as well.
In making my appointment at Boots online, I was unable to enter my U.S. mobile phone number as requested to complete the booking. I ended up using my friend’s U.K. number instead, but do take note of this for booking purposes.
My appointment was at 8:50 a.m. and I received my negative test results less than 20 minutes later.
Out of the three tests, the pre-U.S. departure one taken at Boots was the only one that went according to plan, making it the easiest of them all. If you are looking for a fit to fly test in the UK, I can’t recommend Boots enough.
Featured photo by Caroline Tanner/The Points Guy.
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