Which COVID Tests Do I Need for Travel?

07 Sep 2021 by Olga Brighton

Travel Information

Last updated 20 Sept 2021

Covid-19 is reshaping the world as we know it. The vaccine rollout is in full effect and as autumn approaches we are partially shifting back to new-normal. International travel has resumed but with different restrictions in place depending on where you are travelling to and from. The rules are about to change for travel to and from England as announced by the Transport Secretary Grant Chapps on 17th Sept 2021. Here we will explain these changes and all you need to know about COVID tests for travel.

There are currently 2 main types of tests for COVID-19, or Coronavirus:

  • polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which check for the genetic material (RNA) of the virus. Samples must be sent for processing at a lab.
  • lateral flow device (LFD) tests detect proteins called ‘antigens’ produced by the virus. They give rapid results within 30 minutes after taking the test and do not require lab processing.

Here's what you need to know about Covid tests before and after your travels.

Essential Travel Tip: Each country travel entry and exit requirements can differ and vary depending on where you are travelling from and to. It’s critical to check travel requirements from your location to your chosen destination (including any stop-overs) in good time before your trip.

Wherever you travel there will almost certainly be time constraints on when your Covid test needs to be taken. You will also need proof of the right type of negative test for your outbound journey. You may also need proof that you have booked the appropriate COVID-19 test package before you return home so that you are permitted entry back to your place of residence.

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What COVID-19 Tests Do I Need To Travel?


The main test is the Polymerase Chain Reaction or commonly known PCR test. A standard swab test where a sample is taken from your mouth or nose. The PCR travel test works by detecting the RNA genetic material that is present in the virus. PCR test results must be assessed in a lab, so leave yourself enough to time to book the test, take it and get the results in time to complete any required travel forms before you depart.

Most countries require this test if you’re travelling in without being fully vaccinated. For travel purposes, the results of the test usually can’t usually be older 72 hours, but it could be as little as 48 hours. The results usually take 24-48 hours, so plan ahead to get your timing right for your particular destination. The PCR is 100% accurate in spotting the infection.

The Rapid Antigen Test

The antigen tests or the lateral flow tests are the faster option but this comes at a reduction in accuracy, so they are not accepted by all destinations for travel purposes. Tests work by mixing your swab with a chemical solution which produces the result within 30 mins. They can detect a high viral load easily, but they are sometimes prone to showing a false negative if infection levels are low.

The Cost Of Covid-19 Tests

The cost of the test differs significantly between providers as does the speed and method they provide results. Depending on where you live, your Government may produce a list of provide the UK government provide such a list. The cost of a PCR test is around £65-£75 per test. An Antigen test is cheaper at around £40.

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The NHS Free Coronavirus Tests

The NHS offers free PCR tests for UK residents who experience symptoms that include a fever, constant cough and any loss of smell or taste. However this free service is NOT available for travel purposes. If you have Covid syptoms and live in the UK you access NHS Covid testing here.

You can also request a free fast antigen tests for regular testing, or if you suspect that you’ve come in contact with someone who has COVID-19. These antigen tests are not suitable for travel purposes.

Read also: Does Your Travel Insurance Cover Coronavirus?

Where Do I Get a COVID-19 Test?

There are many providers to choose from. If your government produces a list of these, then it’s a good idea to use one of the registered companies. Otherwise opt for a reputable provider with good reviews, or one that your airline or tour operator suggest, as this will make the travel preparation process easier. Many EU countries offer rapid tests at local pharmacies which are quick and cost effective, but check that it’s the correct test for your travel needs beforehand. Some may not provide the test results in the format or language required - so checking your particular travel itinerary requirements is a must.

Top Tip: travel covid test prices vary a lot. So do timings of test results. When choosing a clinic check the full package price before you buy – especially if you need a series of tests to satisfy exit and return requirements.

Some providers offer fast servicing – usually drive through facilities at main airports. Others offer home test kits which could be more convenient and cheaper. You have to be extra careful to follow the instructions implicitly when self testing to avoid a voided test result. Results should be provided in 24 to 48 hours by text / email.

FCDO Covid-19 Rules in England

The rules are about to change for England and a simplified system for international travel will commence in October 2021.

From 4am on 4th October the current traffic light system for categorising countries (green, amber and red) will be replaced by one single red list. 8 destinations will be removed from the red list including Turkey and Pakistan.

Simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world from this date and testing requirements will be reduced for eligible fully vaccinated travellers. From 4 October, England will also recognise full vaccinations and allow entry to fully vaccinated travellers from 17 new countries who will be treated the same as returning fully vaccinated UK travellers. This includes Japan and Singapore.

In addition, from the end of October, fully vaccinated travellers and those with an approved vaccine (from non-red countries) will not need a day 2 test. Instead they can take a freely available lateral flow test. Travellers testing positive must still isolate and take a PCR test, at no additional cost to the traveller.

Testing for unvaccinated passengers from non-red countries will include pre-departure tests, day 2 and day 8 PCR tests. FCDOTest to release remains available for those who need to reduce self-isolation time.

For now and until 4th October England's current traffic light system remains in force where different rules apply for different countries when travelling into England. The list categories and current testing rules are as follows:

  • Red
  • Amber
  • Green

Coming from a red country you will need a COVID-19 3 days before you travel to England. Then before you arrive in England you need to complete a passenger locator form and book a 10 days quarantine hotel with two COVID-19 tests. See here for more information.

Coming from an amber country you will need a COVID-19 3 day before you arrive in England. If you are vaccinated with an approved vaccine, you need to complete a passenger locator prior to arrival and pre-book and pay for a 2 day test. If you are partially vaccinated, or part vaccinated you still need to quarantine at home or in the place where you’re staying for 10 days, where you will have 2 tests – by the second day and on day 8. You can apply for a test to release early after day 5. IF you book and pay for an additional test and get a negative result.

Coming from a green country still requires a test within 3 days before you travel and one test on day 2 after you arrive. If both tests are negative you don’t have to quarantine.

It’s important to know if you have a layover or you stop in any red or amber country, no matter if you're coming from a green country, you will have to follow the protocol for red and amber countries.

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What Countries Require COVID-19 Tests For Entry?

Most countries worldwide require some sort of test or quarantine for entry. We cannot stress the importance of carefully planning in advance regarding COVID travel requirements. Or your trip may not go ahead. Things are easier if you are double vaccinated and if you are eligible for a green pass or vaccine passport – especially if travelling through the EU.

Travelling to a green list country is easiest. Just ensure you book your trip with a flexible alteration and cancellation policy so you are prepared if things change.

Top Tip: you may have all of your documents like Covid test results, passenger locators, vaccination certificates available electronically, but it's best to have printed copies too. Or ensure your travel companion has copies on their device as a back-up measure. You wont be travelling anywhere without these essentials to hand.

IMPORTANT: Be aware that many locations now require you to show evidence of vaccination or at the very least a current negative COVID test before they permit entry to many facilities such as shops, cinemas, restaurants, shopping malls. Be ready with your evidence to avoid disappointment.

GREAT NEWS! To help you keep travel costs down, we’ve partnered with one of the UK’s leading COVID-19 test providers to bring you 20% off your next COVID testing with every Globelink travel insurance policy. All our travel insurance options cover Coronavirus so you can book your next trip with confidence.

Read also: Best Travel YouTube Channels to Inspire

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