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

Dec 3, 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. Given that the new Omicron COVID variant has led to the return of many pandemic protocols right now is a good time to refresh yourself on what is needed.

The U.K. has already made day 2 PCR tests a mandatory requirement for arrivals. The U.S. is also going to require all inbound international travellers, regardless of their vaccination status, to provide a negative COVID test result taken within 24 hours of departure – previously this was 72 hours.

But with regards to understanding the tests themselves, there are actually 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 travelling with unvaccinated children. And now, pre-travel testing is even more critical as a result of the latest Omicron COVID-19 variant.

So, which test do you need? And what’s the difference between all the different tests? Here’s what to look for 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 at some testing facilities. 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, although the speed at which you will receive your results can vary depending upon the private testing company that you use, and your location. Generally speaking, however, you can expect to receive your results between one and seven days. At The Points Guy UK, we have regularly used both Randox and Qured throughout the pandemic without issues for swift pre-travel testing.

Related: How to find an affordable, reliable and fast Day 2 PCR test

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). The U.K. will require you to take a PCR test on or before Day 2 of your arrival.

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

Related: What kind of COVID-19 test do I need to travel and how much will it cost?

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. Qured, as mentioned earlier offer this service in the U.K.

That’s good news for U.S.-bound travellers who may not have many testing options at their location abroad. Travellers 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.

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.

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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