Everything you need to know about COVID-19 testing for travel

Oct 29, 2020

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Masks, quarantines and testing have become part of our travel routine in 2020.

In an effort to get us travelling again, some countries around the world have adopted a “negative test on arrival” policy to enable visitors to have a safe and quarantine-free stay while reducing the risk posed to residents.

However, it’s not just as simple as ordering or booking the first test and being done with it. Several elements must be considered first like the type of test required, how long before your arrival you need to take your test and then, the most important, which tests will be accepted by the country you’re going to?

We put this guide together to help you navigate your way through your pre-trip COVID-19 test planning.

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What type of tests are there?

As you’re probably aware, there seem to be several different kinds of test on offer right now. Here’s a brief explanation of each.

PCR tests

A PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test is the type that most countries require you to have taken. They are the most reliable type of tests, as the results come from laboratory examinations. These are available to you through the NHS if you have symptoms, through private clinics or at-home testing. It’s worth noting that you should not use the NHS testing service for travel-related testing needs.

Antigen tests

Antigen tests also provide positive or negative results and are able to be processed a lot quicker — often through traces in saliva rather than in-nose swabs. These tests are less likely to be accepted when providing test results on arrival.

Antibody tests

The only tests mentioned on the U.K. government’s website are PCR virus tests and antibody tests. An antibody test isn’t useful for travel purposes, as it only shows if you had the virus in the past.

The PCR virus test is the most important for travellers — and the one that many countries will require you to have on entering.

Which destinations require a test for entry?

The best way to check is by searching the gov.uk website for the entry requirements of the country you’re planning to visit. Depending on your specific destination, it may stipulate that a PCR test is required, others may just simply say ‘a test’.

Some countries ttake this one step further, stating that the PCR test must be done by a health professional in a clinic and not at home with a self-test kit.

The U.K. government stresses that NHS tests must not be used for these travel-related tests. You must take a private test in order to meet travel requirements.

There are still some countries on England’s travel corridor list that don’t require a test for entry, but many of these will require some kind of quarantine when you arrive at your destination.

Given that there is only a handful of destinations left that the government deems safe to travel to without quarantining on either end. I’ve picked those out to use as examples:

  • Cuba does not require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals. Passengers will be tested for free on arrival;
  • Cyprus does require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals;
  • Germany does require proof of a negative test for U.K. arrivals;
  • Gibraltar does not require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals;
  • Greece does not require a pre-departure test for U.K. arrivals. Passengers may be asked to take a test on arrival;
  • Maldives does require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals;
  • The Azores and Madeira (Portugal) does require a pre-departure test for U.K. arrivals;
  • The Canary Islands (Spain) does not require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals;
  • St Barthélemy does require proof of a negative PCR test for U.K. arrivals; and
  • Sweden does not require a negative test for U.K. arrivals.

It’s also worth noting that some destinations have additional requirements regarding the test. For example, The Republic of Cyprus government requires that the date and time that the test was taken must clearly be noted on the results or appointment letter. This also has to be loaded onto the Cyprus Flight Pass website 24 hours before you fly.

How long before travelling should I get a test?

In most cases, destinations ask that you take your test within at the most 72 hours of your departure from the U.K. For some destinations, that number is higher, like the Maldives, which is 96 hours.

The trick is being able to get a test done and get your results in enough time. The best advice would be to take your test as close to 72 hours out from your flight as possible to give you the maximum amount of time possible to receive your results before you fly.

Where is the best place to get a test?

As per the U.K. government’s website, NHS tests must not be used for travel abroad.

When you should get it relies on how easy it is for you to get somewhere and how much time you have until travel. For example, if you’re flying on a Monday, turnaround over the weekend might mean your test doesn’t get to the lab in enough time to get your results before your flight.

If your destination allows for an at-home test, this leaves a seemingly endless list of private surgery and online options. To help narrow your choices down a little bit, here’s a selection of online ordering and in-person collection options that TPG staffers and readers alike have had varied experiences when using.

Remote tests (do it yourself at home)

Lloyd’s Pharmacy Online Doctor
Cost: £119

Alun L. from the TPG Lounge had a great experience using Lloyd’s Pharmacy Online Doctor, complete with timely results and a downloadable certificate.

“Results back 48 hours from receipt of mailed test so 72 hours from me taking it,” Alun said.


If you’re flying with British Airways, you can get 15% discount off the cost of your test with CitiDoc. However, Vikki S. from the TPG Lounge pointed out something worth noting: “I am aware of several people who had it done by CitiDoc (as they were flying BA) but the tests were not accepted in Barbados so had to have another test on arrival and then isolate until result.”

CitiDoc also does in-clinic testing.

Randox Health
Cost: £120

James S. booked his test with Randox Health and received a discount because he was flying with TUI. He paid £84 instead of the advertised £120 and had a very speedy experience.

“[Tests] arrived next day, we did the test same day, sent back same day, got the results very early next morning at 2:30”, James said.

In-clinic testing


You must pre-book DocTap COVID test appointments online and have your test done at four pharmacies in London. Readers have reported getting results back in 36 hours rather than the advised 72.

James D.P., who got a discount through his Vitality health insurance, said: “I did it in the pharmacy at King’s Cross, left it with them, then two days later got the results by email. The results came with a certificate that we replied to and asked them to add the time the test was taken onto the PDF. They did it immediately.”

Nomad Travel
Cost: £195

Nomad’s in-clinic COVID testing costs £195. Those flying with BA get a 15% discount. Results are promised within 48 hours, and comes complete with a travel certificate at no extra cost.

Nomad also offers clinician guided at-home tests for £195.

Ones to avoid (for now)

Harley Street Clinic
Before TPG’s Emily McNutt headed off on her trip to Italy, she and her partner sent their tests together on a Thursday afternoon. While Emily got her results a 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, it was a full week until her partner received his on the following Thursday.

Boots is now offering walk-in testing at 50 shops across the U.K. These are super-quick, 12-minute tests for those who need results quickly. However, as per the Boots website, the pharmacies tests are “not currently approved as a pre-flight testing service, which requires a PCR test and for results to be processed via a registered lab.”

Heathrow Airport testing
Heathrow has introduced pre-departure testing for passengers heading to Italy and Hong Kong. The tests, however, are not PCR tests and are therefore not likely to be accepted by either of those countries on arrival.

Related: Heathrow loses title as busiest airport in Europe

Bottom line

A test result doesn’t simply mean just getting any old test. As a rule of thumb, a PCR test done in a clinic by a healthcare professional is going to be your safest bet. However, rules and regulations will vary depending on the destination you’re going to. Make sure, more than ever, to double- and triple-check what applies to you to ensure your trip gets off to a smooth and COVID-free start.

Featured image by Westend61/Getty 

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