The Biden administration’s push toward increased Covid testing is hitting its stride, with a billion free home Covid tests becoming available. Since Saturday, many Americans can get free at-home Covid-19 tests through their health insurance from pharmacies, retailers and online vendors.
And starting tomorrow, a new government website will let Americans get four free home tests delivered to each household. (If you’re confused about when to get a PCR test versus a home test for various everyday situations, here’s a good explainer.)
Yet for Americans traveling internationally, there’s a very important wrinkle to choosing an at-home test. In short, not all self-administered tests are approved for travel.
Before your flight back to the United States, you must take a Covid-19 viral test no more than one day prior to your flight’s departure. You must show your negative test result to the airline before you board your flight. This requirement applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers, but there is an exception for people who can show documentation of having recovered from Covid-19 within the past 90 days.
Because of the short, one-day window for testing before the return flight to the U.S., and because not every country makes it easy and affordable to get a same-day test result, many travelers have taken to packing their own at-home rapid tests.
It can be a smart move, but it’s crucial to choose a self-administered test that meets the CDC requirements for travel. Tests can be self-administered at home — or in a hotel room, vacation rental, airport lounge or anywhere with a good Wi-Fi connection — as long as they meet these criteria:
- The test must be a viral test — either a nucleic acid amplification test [NAAT] or antigen test — with Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- The test must be proctored. That means the traveler must perform the test during a live telehealth video call with an authorized technician supervising the procedure in real time.
- The telehealth provider must confirm your identity, observe the traveler perform the test, confirm the test result, and issue a report that includes the type of test, the entity issuing the result, the date and time the test was administered.
- Airlines and border officials must be able to review and confirm a match between the traveler’s identity and their test results.
That second bullet point is all-important; the free rapid tests the government is distributing are generally not the type that are proctored.
Labeling can be confusing because a brand-name test manufacturer can make multiple different Covid self tests, some of which are accepted for travel and some are not. For example, Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test does not satisfy the CDC’s requirement for international arrivals, while the company’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test does. Self test versus home test? Sifting through terminology can be headache inducing.
Moreover, buying an at-home test for travel can get even more complicated — and more expensive. Some at-home test manufacturers charge a subscription fee for the supervised testing component required for international travel. Others require the purchase of a small reader device to process the results from a single-use nasal swab. Many travelers will say no thanks to these extra expenses.
There are at-home antigen tests made specifically for travel, which you can order online or buy at a pharmacy. Prices can range anywhere from to $39 for Qured’s Video Supervised Rapid Test for Travel to $59 in total for Ellume’s Covid-19 Home Test. For the latter, you would need to purchase the test from a pharmacy for $39 and then pay an additional $20 for the video observation component.
To eliminate the worry of choosing the wrong type of test, the digital health platform eMed.com walks travelers through the entire process. Before your trip, you need to preorder the tests online for $150 for six Covid tests, or $25 apiece; then, follow step-by-step directions during your trip. Don’t forget to get a receipt so you can get reimbursed by your health insurance company.