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Traveling abroad? Here’s how to plan your COVID-19 tests

5 minute read
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Many countries are welcoming travelers — if they have proof that they’re COVID-19-free. Here are 5 tips that can make the testing process a lot less stressful.

Nancy Fitzgerald

By Nancy Fitzgerald

Heading out to explore the world? Lucky you. It’s been a long couple of years, and we’re all ready to dig out our passports and pack our bags (the omicron variant notwithstanding). But — like everything else in this sort-of-post-pandemic universe — travel is more complicated than it used to be.

One big change: If you’re leaving for foreign shores, you may need a COVID-19 test before you take off — and you’ll definitely need another one before returning home. 

“Travel is forever changed,” says John Clifford, a travel adviser and president of International Travel Management, based in San Diego. “It’s no longer as simple as booking a flight and finding a hotel. Getting access to the right information is absolutely critical. That can mean the difference between being worried the whole time you’re away and having a great travel experience.”

It’s all up to you, says Clifford. “As a traveler, you’re individually responsible for complying with all the COVID testing regulations before, during and after your trip. And things are changing all the time, so staying informed is essential.” (One key fact to remember: You can get COVID more than once.)

Ready to get started? Follow these 5 steps:

1. Avoid connecting flights.

Scrolling through a website for the cheapest fare may not be the best strategy anymore. “Connecting flights add a whole new level of complexity,” explains Lorraine Simpson, an award-winning international travel expert based in Canada who regularly speaks on TV and at conferences around the world.

Say you’re going to Dublin, and you find a flight that connects through Lisbon with just a 1-hour layover. No big deal, right? Wrong. “If you transfer through a country, you still have to follow that country’s rules on testing — whether or not you ever step foot outside the airport. So you’d need a COVID test to go through Lisbon, even if your final destination doesn’t require it.”

You might find yourself scrambling to find a quick (and expensive) COVID test before boarding your flight to Dublin.

2. Know your COVID tests.

There are 2 main categories of COVID-19 tests:

NAAT. Short for Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests, these can find small amounts of the virus’s genetic material, even if you don’t have any symptoms. One type of NAAT is the PCR, which can find the virus with nearly 100% accuracy. Others include the NEAR and LAMP tests. You can get these tests at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and clinics, where results may take a few days. There are even some home tests available, though their results tend to be a bit less accurate.

Antigen tests. Instead of scouting out the virus’s genetic material, antigen tests detect the proteins your immune system creates to fight off the infection. Though they’re not quite as accurate as NAAT tests, they’re quick, and there are options for at-home testing that are handy for travelers.

The Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test, for example, is available to consumers without a prescription in pharmacies and online through the Optum Store. The best part: It’s quick, with results in 15 to 20 minutes. (Shop all COVID-19 tests available from the Optum Store.)

3. Choose the right test.

If you’re traveling internationally, each country will have different requirements. Some may require a PCR test taken in a doctor’s office, while others may accept the results of a rapid antigen test you can take at home. And for some countries, fully vaccinated passengers with proper documentation may not need testing at all.

To find out for sure, go to the consulate website of your destination country. A great place to start is the U.S. Department of State’s travel page, where you’ll find country-specific COVID-19 testing information for every nation in the world. Other reliable sources include your airline’s website, as well as the travel site Sherpa and the International Air Transport Association. Both sites provide interactive maps with frequently updated information.

But be careful: Regulations can — and often do — change, so stay on top of updates from the country’s embassy. (And you may even need testing for domestic travel, Clifford points out. Hawaii, for example, has its own testing requirements for Americans visiting from other states.)

4. Watch the clock.

Timing is everything. Pay very close attention to the exact time you need to take your test, then set a reminder on your phone or watch. The rules are different everywhere — and they can change quickly — so stay informed.

5. Get home safely.

You’ve had an amazing vacation, but sooner or later it’s time to come home. The U.S. won’t let you back in, however, without a clean COVID-19 bill of health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires that Americans returning home present proof of a negative COVID-19 test before getting on a plane.

As of Dec. 5, you need a test within 1 day of your flight regardless of vaccination status, according to the CDC.

Which tests are accepted? Go to the CDC’s travel site to find out. You can get the test at a local clinic, pharmacy, or perhaps even at your hotel.

Or, before you leave for your trip, you can toss a self-test that has Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including the Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test, into your suitcase. It provides real-time telehealth supervision through an audio and video connection. The telehealth provider will confirm your identity, observe as you collect your sample, confirm the test result, and issue a report that meets the CDC’s guidelines.

Then, before boarding, show the airline the paper or digital copy of your negative COVID-19 test. This is one rule you’ll want to follow to the letter. “Without your proof of a negative COVID test, you can miss your flight back home,” says Simpson. “You simply won’t be allowed to board.”

That’s not the best way to end your vacation. Take some time now to make your COVID-19 testing plan so you can enjoy your trip worry-free.

Woman in kitchen rubbing her neck
The Optum Store can help you stock up on everything from bandages and cold medicine to home COVID-19 tests and more

Additional sources
Covid at-home test options: UC Davis Health. 2021 More Options Than Ever for At-Home and Community Covid-19 Tests.
NAAT tests: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests (NAATs).
Antigen test: MIT. How Does the COIVD-19 Antigen Test Work?
U.S. travel restrictions: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Documentation of Recovery From COVID-19.
International travel restrictions: Sherpa. Travel Restrictions Map. Where’s Open, What’s Required?