Q: Please explain how you can obtain a coronavirus test for re-entry to the U.S. when you do not know the location, cost, procedure or language to get this service.
A: Coronavirus testing has come a long way since I got my first swab in October 2020. For starters, they are no longer a scarce commodity, which is great news if you’re traveling overseas. They’re also now required for international travelers returning to the United States.
In case you missed it, anyone 2 years old and above must show results of a negative rapid or PCR test they took within one day of flying into the United States. The rule, which was updated in December following the discovery of the omicron variant, applies to vaccinated people, too. If you’ve recovered from a case of COVID-19 in the past 90 days, you can provide a doctor’s note from a licensed health-care provider.
Your airline is supposed to review your test result before you get on the plane home, and if you don’t have it or did it incorrectly, you may be denied boarding.
Here’s the thing: The international tourism industry — from hotels to destinations to airlines — needs travelers again. That means if you’re going somewhere people want to travel, you should be able to get a test.
If it gives you any comfort, travel vlogger Drew Binsky — who has been to more than 15 countries during the pandemic — told me finding a test in some places has been difficult (he specified Mauritania and Afghanistan), but never impossible.
“As soon as you arrive in any country, your mission should be to find out WHERE and HOW to get tested before you leave,” Binsky said via Instagram message from Palau. “Usually they will know at the airport.”
To double check the testing landscape of the place you’re visiting, pull up its U.S. Embassy website. It will have a “COVID-19 Information” page that includes a testing section where you will find advice on getting a test, whether results are reliably available, how much it should cost and more.
The embassy may have options only for big cities, so what if you’re traveling off the beaten path? As long as you can connect to the internet, even if you’re backpacking in the Siberian tundra, you can take a coronavirus test that will allow you back in the United States. All you have to do is pack a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved “at-home test” or “self test” that you take over a video call with real-time supervision from a telehealth service.
To try the at-home option, I brought this BinaxNOW kit with me to France this summer. A friend had told me that the same test didn’t work for her once, so I brought a backup. I also knew that if it didn’t work, I would be able to get a test at a pharmacy or the airport.
On the evening before my flight back to the United States, I downloaded the appropriate app, read and reread the instructions, and went through the test while a telehealth professional coached me over a video call. It took about 25 minutes, plus another half-hour to wait for the results.
After 30 minutes, another telehealth professional came on the line to help review the results over video. It was negative, and shortly after, the results were available by email and in the app. I took screenshots of the test result QR code and felt confident going into the airport. (Although full disclosure — no one asked me to show my test results before my flight home. But that’s another story.)
Of course, you don’t have to pack your own test. Many hotels offer to arrange testing to take some of the stress off travelers, but the specifics will vary from property to property.
“Know the hotel’s policies and procedures as far as testing goes,” says Maurice Smith, a luxury travel adviser at Eugene Toriko travel agency. “Is there a fee or is it included? Do I have to stay two nights for the test to be included? And you have to consider if the test is off-site.”
If the hotel, doctor or clinic offers results only online or via email, Smith recommends travelers request a physical copy to take to the airport as a backup, as well as taking a photo of them to keep on their phone.
Traveling is exciting and can be overwhelming; it’s easy to forget about the testing requirement until the last minute. Courtnie Nichols, CEO of the travel agency TravelBash, says her biggest advice for clients is to know exactly what tests you need (not just for the United States, but also any country you’re transiting through) and to arrange your test as soon as possible.
“As soon as you get to the resort, schedule it,” Nichols says.
Making your testing arrangements at the beginning of your trip will give you peace of mind, and it will ensure you get an appointment in the appropriate time window for your flight. And remember, that window matters a lot. Tiffany L. Layne, owner and luxury travel designer for LaVon Travel & Lifestyle, says she has heard of many people denied boarding because of ill-timed tests.
Layne, Smith and Nichols all strongly recommend buying covid-specific travel insurance to cover the unknown (if you test positive, if your travel plans go haywire, if you need to be hospitalized). We’re still in a pandemic, new variants bring new complications, and it’s impossible to predict how your trip will go.
“Changes are happening fast, and changes may also happen while you’re traveling,” Layne says.
They all also urge travelers to get tested before a trip, even if it’s not required to do so. Not only do you not want to be responsible for spreading a deadly virus, but also if your trip is short and you already have COVID but no symptoms, you could test positive when you try to come home.