The United States on Monday began requiring all inbound international travelers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a day of their flight to enter the country. The requirement is mandatory for anyone at least 2 years old, even American citizens and legal residents, regardless of vaccination status.
Previously, anyone flying into the United States needed to test ahead of their trip, but their vaccination status determined their testing timeline. Vaccinated travelers had three days to get tested, while unvaccinated travelers had just one.
Other countries have also implemented new testing strategies to combat omicron. Starting Tuesday, the United Kingdom will require international travelers to show proof of a negative test within 48 hours of their inbound flights (in addition to testing again within two days of arrival and self-quarantining until results are processed).
The updated testing requirements – along with the extension of federal mask mandates and expansion of voluntary testing opportunities for new arrivals at some U.S. airports – aim to slow the spread of the emerging omicron variant.
Here’s what international travelers need to know ahead of their flights:
What types of tests are accepted
Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements, travelers must get a rapid antigen test or nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), which includes polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
While the PCR lab test is considered the gold standard of coronavirus testing, it usually takes a couple of days to process results so it won’t work for the updated U.S. testing window (unless you get a pricey rapid PCR test, which delivers results in about an hour). Rapid antigen tests tend to be the fastest and most affordable, with results available in as little as 15 minutes.
If you were infected with the coronavirus in the past 90 days, you will have to provide proof of recovery to the airline with a recent positive test and a letter from a doctor or public health official.
How to find a test abroad
As you plan your international trip, factor getting your coronavirus test into your itinerary. Depending on where you’re visiting, it may be very easy to find one. Big cities and popular tourism destinations should have plenty of options, but finding a test might be more difficult if you’re off the beaten path.
Travelers can reference the “COVID-19 Information” page of the place they’re visiting on the U.S. Embassy website, which will include a section on testing information. There they can find tips for getting a test, how much they’ll cost and whether results can be expected in the U.S. requirement’s testing window.
The site TestForTravel.com is another helpful resource that features crowdsourced information on finding coronavirus tests abroad (and researching global travel requirements).
To make travel more convenient and give customers peace of mind, many hotels, resorts and tour operators offer to arrange tests to meet U.S. requirements. Tests may be administered on-site, in guest rooms or at health clinics and hospitals.
Alternatively, travelers can skip in-person testing by bringing a self-test on their trip. But not all self-tests (or “at-home” tests) are accepted. Self-tests must be approved by the CDC and be taken over a video call with real-time supervision from a telehealth service. Popular options include Qured’s antigen self-tests and the BinaxNOW kit (not the over-the-counter version found at drugstores; you have to order the COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test online and make sure it includes video call support).
How to arrange affordable tests
Coronavirus testing – particularly last-minute options – can give travelers sticker shock. Often the most expensive options, like testing facilities at airports, bank on desperation to justify the exorbitant prices.
The best way to avoid blowing your travel budget on tests is to plan them in advance. Compare testing prices at your hotel – some include testing in their room rate – with local pharmacies and urgent-care facilities. Or order an approved self-test early enough to get it delivered before your departure.
Some airlines, like American and easyJet, have offered discounts on self-tests for passengers flying between certain destinations. Check your airline’s website ahead of travel to see what they have on offer.
When to time your test
With such a short testing window, the requirement doesn’t leave travelers much wiggle room to wait for results. As PCR tests often take around two days to process, an approved rapid test is your best bet for getting results back within a day of your trip to the United States.
Don’t wait too long to order those self-tests; at-home kits are in high demand as the holidays approach and can be hard to come by.
When to show your test results
Airlines are in charge of verifying traveler test results at the airport. Be prepared to show airline staff your results as you check in for a flight or before you board. Travelers who have recovered from COVID-19 can provide airline staff proof of their recovery, including a recent positive test and a letter from a doctor or public health official.
It’s fine to have results on your phone, but you may want to print out a copy as a backup. Travelers can also store results and other required forms in so-called health passports, like VeriFLY. VeriFLY is available for all flights to the United States and for flights to some destinations abroad.
What happens if you test positive abroad
People who test positive during international travel will not be able to return to the United States until they recover and can provide a negative test result or proof of recent recovery.
Experts recommend travelers check in with their airline, travel adviser or destination’s health department to find out what quarantine options are available. Some countries will let you isolate in your hotel room. Some hotels even reduce their prices if you’re required to extend your stay because of an COVID infection. Others may have specific accommodations for quarantining travelers.
Travel insurance can help offset some of the unexpected costs of an infection abroad.