COVID-19 testing has become a routine part of our lives – and now it’s a necessity for international travel. Regardless of where you’re going or your vaccination test, you need a recent COVID-19 test to fly back to the U.S.
Those restrictions have gotten much stricter recently: Regardless of your vaccination status, all Americans now need a negative COVID-19 test taken just one calendar day before flying back to the U.S. That’s a tight timeline, making it more stressful to track down a test in a foreign country and get results back in time.
This is where at-home COVID-19 tests shine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explicitly allows select at-home rapid antigen testing kits under the testing requirements, which can serve as an elegant solution for any upcoming international trip.
But not just any at-home test will do. And there’s more to be aware of if you’re planning to simply toss a test in your bag and swab yourself before returning back to the U.S.
Read on to see if it’s the right option for your trip.
- The Basics of Testing Rules
- Which Tests Qualify? And Where to Buy Them?
- A Firsthand Look at Abbott BinaxNow Tests
- Trying out Azova Ellume Tests
- When to Use an At-Home COVID-19 Test for Travel
- What if You Test Positive with an At-Home Test Abroad?
The Basics of Testing Rules
President Joe Biden launched this new international travel testing requirement soon after taking office in January 2021.
And now, despite the rapid COVID-19 vaccination campaign, that testing requirement remains in place – and has just gotten more strict. Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you now need to take a COVID-19 test within one calendar day of departure for the U.S. And with concerns about the Delta variant and a new Omicron variant still running high, that requirement seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has laid out clearly exactly what you need in order to be able to board your flight back to the U.S.
- All travelers 2 years and older need a negative COVID-19 test to board their flight to the U.S. – regardless of their vaccination status.
- The test must be performed no more than one calendar day (not 24 hours) before the flight departs for the U.S. So if you’re flying to the U.S. on a Saturday evening, a test taken anytime on Friday will qualify.
- Tests must be either a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) such as a PCR or LAMP or an antigen test, including rapid antigen tests.
- Test results must show the type of test performed, the name of the entity performing the test, the date the specimen was collected, your name and identification, and a negative result.
- Results can be in paper or digital format.
- If you’ve had COVID-19, you can bypass this testing requirement. But you must show a positive test result no more than 90 days old plus a signed letter from a health care provider showing you’ve been cleared to travel.
Read more on the current international travel testing requirements!
When these rules were first introduced, at-home testing kits weren’t an option. This past spring, the CDC loosened requirements to allow at-home, self-testing kits to qualify for the entry requirements. But not just any test will do.
It must be a test that has received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. And it can’t be a test you perform all by yourself: It also must include a telehealth appointment, where a medical professional supervises your sample collection via webcam.
One restriction to be aware of: These self-test kits will only be accepted for children 4 and older. So if you’ve got younger kids, you’ll need to find a different solution.
Plus, your test results have some very specific requirements, too. A test result must be in the form of written documentation (either paper or electronic copy are fine). The documentation must include:
- Type of test (indicating it is a NAAT or antigen test)
- The company issuing the result (e.g. laboratory, healthcare facility, or telehealth service)
- Specimen collection date. A negative test result must show the specimen was collected within the 3 days before the flight.
- Information that identifies the person (full name plus at least one other identifier such as date of birth or passport number)
- Test Result
Those requirements leave us with just a few options.
Which Tests Qualify? And Where to Buy Them?
You can’t just go grab a test off the shelf of your local pharmacy, throw it in your bag, and take it to fly back to the U.S.
Currently, there are just three main options that will work for travelers returning to the U.S.:
- The Abbott BinaxNow COVID-19 Home Test
- The Azova Ellume COVID-19 Home Test
- The Qured Ag Test
You can buy these tests (or a pack of several tests) online and have them shipped to your home, and the costs vary.
Normally, you can buy a Qured test for $45 apiece. Azova Ellume tests started at $40 apiece – plus another $10 or $15 for a supervised appointment. Packs of six Abbott BinaxNOW tests are available through eMed for $150 – bringing the cost per test down to just $25. Otherwise, you can buy two- and three- packs through Optum.
After short supplies of rapid COVID-19 tests over the summer led to serious problems tracking down these tests. But fortunately, that has improved in recent weeks: You can once again order most of these tests online. One exception is Azova, which stopped selling its Ellume testing kits online in early September.
You may also be able to track down a test from a local pharmacy, but that’s no slam dunk either. Plus, you’ll have to be sure that the test you’re buying off the shelf includes the option of a telehealth appointment, and that’s not always clear.
One common issue with these tests lately is that they may have tight expiration timelines. We’ve seen reports that tests will arrive but expire within just a few months or even weeks. Just be sure to check the expiration date of your tests when they arrive – and don’t bank on being able to use these tests for the next year of international travel.
A Firsthand Look at Abbott BinaxNow Tests
Thrifty Traveler executive editor Kyle’s experience with Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 at-home tests couldn’t have been smoother earlier this fall. Here’s what he had to say after his September trip to Europe:
My wife and I each took two of these at-home tests for our trip to Italy last month: One each to satisfy Italy’s entry requirements to get into the country, and then another in order to fly back to the U.S. Both rounds of testing were seamless and easy.
We ordered a six-pack through eMed.com for $150. Fortunately, eMed allows you to split these tests with a companion, which meant we had enough tests to get to Italy, fly home, and a backup in case of a false positive.
The testing kits come in fairly small boxes, which are easy enough to throw into a backpack or carry-on bag until you’re ready.
You’ll need to download the Navica app, which is what Abbott uses to process and display the test results once they’re processed. But unlike Erica’s experience with the Ellume tests, there’s no need to schedule an appointment in advance. Just head to eMed.com when you’re ready to take your test and start the process.
While that led to some lengthy backlogs and waits earlier this year as travelers waited minutes (or even hours) to get a supervisor on the line, that wasn’t the case for us: In every case, someone joined the appointment within just 15 to 20 seconds of starting the process.
The test itself is simple: A supervisor instructed us to carefully open the testing packet, use the liquid dropper to activate the testing module, swab each nostril for 15 seconds while rotating, and insert it into the testing device.
It’s harmless … and it’s not one of those deep brain poke tests. From there, they started a 15-minute timer to wait as the test was analyzed.
When that 15 minute-wait was up, another telehealth professional hopped back on the line to observe and report our results. A few minutes later, we each had an email with a PDF of our test results as well as a new entry in our Navica apps.
From start to finish, the entire process took about 20 minutes total. And it was easy to simply flash the PDF of our results on our smartphones when checking in for our return flights to the U.S.
Would we use the Abbott BinaxNOW test again?
While there’s no question that easy-to-find testing options are prevalent in many countries where travelers are heading today, the Abbott BinaxNOW test was simple and fast. The six-pack of tests made the costs cheaper than options you’ll find almost anywhere else, and it was comforting to know we each had a backup test in case of a false positive result.
It was a breeze using this method back in September 2021. But now that we Americans need a negative test just one day before heading back to the U.S., this will probably be my go-to test for now.
Trying out Azova Ellume Tests
We decided to bring along Azova Ellume at-home COVID-19 tests on our recent trip to France to see how they work.
We ordered two tests including telehealth appointments online, at $50 each, a few weeks before our trip. Unfortunately, they are not currently available online anymore, though you may be able to track them down in some stores.
A third test came with the two tests we ordered – we assume because of the (rare) chance of a false positive. Our assumption was that this is due to the test’s accuracy rate with a 3% chance of a false positive. Each test kit includes a nasal swab, a dropper, processing fluid, and an analyzer for use with an app on your phone.
With these Ellume tests, you need to schedule an appointment in advance to make sure you get test results within three days of your flight back home. So before we headed for France, we scheduled our appointments within three days of our flights returning home.
We were instructed to download both the Ellume and Azova apps before our trip: Ellume is the test, while Azova is the platform you will need for your webcam appointment. You can also access Azova from a laptop but you will still need your phone and the Ellume app to process your test.
A few days before our test, we received text messages and emails reminding us of our test time. The instruction email for the test from Azova ended up in our spam folders – make sure to keep an eye on that.
Word of warning: Do not open the package contents until you’re told to do so – once they’re open, you only have a narrow window to take your test. After getting all the pieces ready, I waited for the test proctor to join the appointment online. While my husband, Jared, had a separate appointment, the test supervisor said we could do both in one call. That means you may need to only schedule (and pay for) one appointment for the whole family.
The app and test proctor guides you through the test including an integrated informational video and step-by-step instructions. You will have to swab both nostrils while the proctor watches to make sure you go in far enough.
Once you’ve correctly collected the sample, it’s analyzed for about 15 minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, the results should process and be displayed on your phone. Your test results are saved within the app as well as your Azova account, where you can access a PDF file of the results to display (or print) for your flight.
Would we use the Ellume test again?
Across much of Europe, finding a COVID-19 test is often as easy as walking to the nearest pharmacy, most of which perform onsite rapid COVID-19 tests. Depending on how you bought your tests, these tests may be even cheaper and hassle-free than this Ellume at-home test. Then again, the new testing requirements make this option even more compelling.
Many resorts in Mexico and across the Caribbean offer onsite rapid testing – and in many cases, it’s free. Many major airports also offer rapid COVID-19 testing onsite.
For example, we took COVID-19 tests to return from Iceland at a local lab for $50 each. On another trip to Italy, finding a test and getting the results was easy – and it cost just $25 apiece.
But as convenient as it may seem to simply through a test in your bag, it didn’t feel that way in practice. It required many more steps like purchasing the tests, scheduling appointments, bringing tests along, downloading apps, and about a half-hour for the appointment itself.
When to Use an At-Home COVID-19 Test for Travel
At-home COVID-19 tests can be a great option for travel to a destination, cruise, or to get home to the U.S. But it might not always be the best option. You may want to do a little bit of research before deciding to use an at-home test.
At-Home COVID-19 Tests to Return to the U.S.
Before you decide to bring an at-home test with you, check out the local options at your destination.
Many countries have made it easy for tourists to get COVID-19 tests, with testing sites available at pharmacies, airports, and even outside of major sites and attractions.
You can generally find a lot of information on where to get tested on the U.S. Embassy website for your destination. But it’s also worth checking with your hotel or accommodations, which may have even more information about nearby testing options. Some hotels may even facilitate your test!
When you’re looking at your options, you’ll want to check out the price for rapid tests and PCR tests – and remember that both are accepted. Rapid tests tend to be much cheaper and provide quicker results, if they are available.
If it’s hard to find a testing site at your destination, you’re worried about getting test results in time, or the tests you do find are more expensive, an at-home test might be your best option. But given the difficulty in tracking down these at-home tests at the moment, it’s no sure thing.
What About Using At-Home Tests for Your Destination? Or a Cruise?
These at-home tests could be used for more than just your flight back to the states. But they may not be accepted universally depending on where you’re going.
First, you’ll want to check what kind of test your destination (or destinations) requires. Some countries require not only specific tests for entry but also that they are processed by a lab. If that’s the case, an at-home test won’t be an option. But many countries simply require is a negative test (PCR or rapid) taken within a certain window, which means almost any at-home test should be accepted.
Cruise lines may also have their own specific requirements for what is accepted – and those requirements can vary from company to company. Make sure to double-check with your cruise line to ensure that an at-home test will get you onboard.
If an at-home test will work for your trip, you’ll still want to check your options locally first. At-home tests cost $25-$50 or more per test. In some states, there are far cheaper testing options – even some that are free.
And beware that many at-home tests also report a false-positive rate of around 3%. While that’s still relatively rare, you could possibly have to take another test.
If there are limited or more expensive options where you live or only more expensive options, an at-home home test may be your best bet.
What if You Test Positive with an At-Home Test Abroad?
This is the big risk of traveling internationally. Whether you test positive with an at-home kit or at a local testing site, it could mean you’re forced to quarantine.
For travelers who test positive after using an at-home kit, the CDC recommends that the telehealth provider report positive test results to relevant public health authorities in the traveler’s location and follow local requirements.
The telehealth provider should also have advice for travelers on what they and their close contacts should do after a positive result. That includes not traveling until they complete isolation in accordance with all local requirements. It varies by country, but expect to be required to quarantine for at least seven to as many as 14 days or more.
Some countries will require you to isolate for 10 days while others may allow you to get out of isolation early with a negative test. You will need to check the rules for your destination. Because there is a risk of a false positive with these at-home tests, you should be able to confirm your test result with either another at-home test if you have one or by getting a second test locally. But this is only recommended if you don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.
Your telehealth professional should advise you on what to do. If it’s recommended you take a second test and it comes back negative, you shouldn’t need to isolate.
At-home COVID-19 tests have emerged as a great option for travelers to satisfy the testing requirements in order to fly back from the U.S. from abroad. That’s truer than ever with the one-day time window travelers now have to test before flying home.
But just because they’re available and convenient doesn’t mean these self-testing kits are always the best option. You may find cheaper and even easier ways to get your COVID-19 test in your destination.
If nothing else, it may be worth throwing a few test kits in your bag before your next international trip just in case other options don’t pan out.