What kind of COVID-19 test do I need to travel and how much does it cost?
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.
Travel has officially returned. You can legally travel for a holiday, or any other reason.
To allow for the return of travel, the U.K. government is using a traffic light system to categorise countries based on their COVID-19 risk level: red for high-risk destinations, amber for medium-risk and green for the lowest-risk countries. While countries or territories may be categorised at a certain level, that doesn’t necessarily mean Brits will be allowed in — the traffic light designation instead refers to restrictions in place on return to the U.K.
But even for travel to the lowest-risk green countries, you’ll still need a number of COVID-19 tests in order to do so. Here, we’ll take a look at what kind of test you will need at each step of your journey and how much you should be prepared to pay.
Getting to your destination
This is the part of a holiday that will feature the most varying information. Each country has largely set up their own entry requirements for travellers who are looking to holiday abroad. The most important part for would-be travellers is to do your research.
For example, Greece said that it’s allowing Britons to enter either with proof that they are fully vaccinated or a negative PCR certificate taken no later than 72 hours before arrival or a negative antigen (rapid) certificate taken no longer than 48 hours before arrival.
That’s expected to continue through the summer.
Some other destinations, however, will require travellers to have a negative COVID-19 test, including lateral flow devices. These are easier to come by — and significantly cheaper. Whereas PCR tests cost about between £50 and £150 apiece — though this figure can vary — you can find lateral flow devices for about £20-£30.
Be sure to research your destination and what the testing requirements are for travellers. Keep in mind, too, that an arrival country can change its entry testing requirements at any time. It’ll be best to keep up to date with the entry requirements leading up to your holiday.
Returning to the UK
All passengers returning to England will need to have a pre-departure test in order to board their flight. The travel provider will check with passengers to ensure they have a negative COVID-19 test in order to board the flight.
These pre-departure tests must be taken within the three days prior to your scheduled departure and the results must be in English, French or Spanish. The results must be on a printed document or on an email or text that you can show on your phone.
According to the U.K. government, eligible pre-departure tests include:
- A nucleic acid test, including a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or derivative technologies, including loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) tests; or
- An antigen test, such as a test from a lateral flow device.
The test “must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml,” according to the government. Test results must include your name, your date of birth or age, the result of the test, the date the sample was collected or received by the test provider, the name of the test provider and contact details and confirmation of the device used for the test, or that the test was a PCR test.
Failure to provide proof of a pre-departure test can result in a £500 fine. Keep in mind that in addition to a pre-departure test, all travellers must also have filled out a passenger locator form prior to their travel to the U.K.
Arrivals to England from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Ascension, Falkland Islands, St Helena and Myanmar do not need to provide proof of a pre-departure test. Additionally, children younger than 11 do not need to take a test, and some jobs are exempt. Check here for the full list of exemptions.
It’s worth noting that this pre-departure testing can be a negative result from a lateral flow device, which is generally much cheaper and easier to get than a laboratory-processed PCR test. A lateral flow test is also ideal for travellers. Some test providers, such as Qured, allow travellers to order a lateral flow test device and take it on their travels, book a digital video appointment with a health care provider and take the test whilst they are abroad.
Travellers will be able to take their test virtually and get results in 20 minutes. It takes the hassle out of locating a testing centre whilst abroad. British Airways has teamed with Qured to offer these lateral flow tests to travellers for £33. You can find cheaper options, though you’ll want to make sure that you are sent an official test result to show proof upon travel.
British Airways is also trialling a new rapid test for its crew that produce COVID-19 test results within 25 seconds. If the trial is successful, it could be a game-changer for travellers looking to test prior to departure and get certified results in less than a minute.
Arrivals from green countries
With the traffic light system in effect, travellers arriving in England from green destinations will not be required to quarantine for 10 days. However, they will need to provide two negative test results. The first test is a pre-departure test, as outlined above, and can be a lateral flow device. The second test must be a PCR test and must be taken on or before day two of their arrival back into England — and it must be booked for and paid for in advance of your travel.
Notably, the second test result must be a PCR test, which adds a new cost element when planning holidays abroad. In addition, this test must be booked before your travel. On the government’s list of approved providers, PCR test kits range in price from about £42 to £399 apiece.
In the wake of the news that the government will require travellers to have a PCR test on arrival, several test providers announced they would slash their costs. For example, Randox, the U.K.’s largest COVID-19 PCR test provider, announced that it was slashing the cost of PCR tests to £60 apiece for travellers. It previously charged £120 for each PCR test. Additionally, more and more providers have lowered the cost, with the lowest-cost option now being just £42.
Currently, the cheapest PCR test bookable via the government’s website is with Anglia DNA Services, which costs £42 — however, it’s only available for travellers in Greater London and the East of England.
The cheapest self-swab at home PCR test is from BioGrad Diagnostics and costs £50. It’s available nationwide in England and says results are available within 48 hours.
You can find the full list of the government’s approved day two PCR testing providers here.
Arrivals from amber countries
Those who are entering England from amber countries are required to quarantine at home or in a secure location for 10 days. As detailed above, they need to have a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test result in order to travel to England.
Prior to their travel, they also need to have pre-booked a testing package to take two additional COVID-19 tests during their quarantine — one on day two and one on day eight. The tests must be booked through a government-approved provider — you can find the full list here.
As of 4 a.m. on Monday 19 July, fully vaccinated travellers who have received both doses of their vaccine in the U.K. will no longer need to quarantine on return to England from an amber country. Under 18s will no longer need to quarantine on return from amber countries. The move effectively extends the green list for fully vaccinated U.K. tourists.
Prices for the two-test packages range from about £73 to £575 — though the vast majority of options are less than £200.
The cheapest day two and day eight testing package is available for in-person testing in Yorkshire and the Humber with RT Diagnostics Ltd., which costs £73 for both tests and provides results within 12 hours. The cheapest on-site testing option for Londoners is with 1010 Labs, which costs £74 for both tests and provides results within 72 hours.
As far as at-home testing, the cheapest package is from Mobihealth International and costs £98. It provides results within 24 hours.
Amber arrivals also have the option to take advantage of England’s Test to Release scheme. The programme allows arrivals to leave their quarantine early if they can produce a negative test result. After five full days of quarantine, those looking to Test to Release will be able to purchase an additional private COVID-19 test. If the test produces a negative result, they can forgo the rest of their quarantine. They will, however, still need to take the day eight test, even though they’ve already left quarantine.
In total, an arrival from an amber country who uses Test to Release will need to take a total of four COVID-19 tests — three of which are required to be PCR tests. You can expect to pay for the pre-departure test (about £30), as well as a two-test PCR package (£73-£575) and a Test to Release PCR test (£42-£100).
Arrivals from red countries
Finally, arrivals from red countries have the most strict — and most costly — entry restrictions. First, it’s worth noting that only U.K. nationals or residents travelling from red countries will be allowed to enter England. Additionally, even if you didn’t spend any time in a red country, but rather transited through the airport, for example, in the past 10 days, you will still be classified as a red country arrival.
Those who are allowed to travel to England will be required to take a pre-departure test, as detailed above. They will also be required to undergo a 10-day quarantine in a government-approved hotel. Hotel quarantine stays start at £1,750 for a single traveller and include the mandatory additional COVID-19 tests on days two and eight of quarantine.
Prior to travelling to England, arrivals who have transited through a red list country in the past 10 days will need to book their hotel quarantine accommodation.
Arrivals from red countries are not able to use the Test to Release programme in order to test out of hotel quarantine early. There are some exemptions to hotel quarantine — you can find the list here.
How can I get a cheaper test?
The biggest inhibitor to a large-scale return to travel is that expensive tests will drive would-be travellers away from booking international holidays. Even for a family of four travelling from a green list country, they can look at paying more than £300 for COVID-19 tests for their return to England — and that’s not accounting for the cost of a test that may be necessary to get into their destination.
A number of companies have reduced pricing for tests for travellers, and the government said that it will continue pressuring companies to drive prices down.
Apart from those, some airlines have agreements in place with testing providers to provide would-be travellers with discounts. For example, British Airways has the following discounts in place for arrivals testing:
- CityDoc home test kits and tests at London clinics — use discount code BA35
- Halo home tests — use discount code BRITISHAIRWAYSHALO
- Medicspot home test kits — use discount code BA
- Qured home test kits — use discount code BATRAVEL15
- Randox home test kits — use discount code BritishAirways43
You do not have to be flying British Airways to use the discount code for a cheaper test.
If you have travel planned, check in with your travel provider to see if it offers any discount for testing. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen airlines from Virgin Atlantic to TUI and EasyJet announce that they will offer special discounted testing options for passengers.
Travel has officially returned. That said, the travel experience will be different from what we’re used to. If you’re planning to head abroad this summer, be prepared to take COVID-19 tests. Even arrivals from the lowest-risk green countries will still need to have a total of two COVID-19 tests, though one of them can be a cheaper lateral flow device.
If you are returning from an amber country and you are fully vaccinated, you will no longer need to book and take a Day 8 test, nor will you need to self-isolate for 10 days. This effectively turns amber countries green for those fully vaccinated.
Featured photo by Jackyenjoyphotoggraphy/Getty Images.
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