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Fit to fly: Your guide to pre-travel tests

Photo of Tamara HinsonPhoto of Tamara Hinson
By Tamara Hinson

11 December 2020 | Updated 19 August 20216 min read

A picture of a woman in an airport in front of departure boards wearing a protective face mask

Considering a holiday this summer? For many destinations, it’s likely you’ll need a negative Covid-19 test to enter if you’re not fully vaccinated (and in some cases, even if you are). With the government’s new ‘traffic light’ system, you’ll need them to return home too, regardless of your vaccination status.

But with hundreds of test providers offering a wide range of testing options, working out how, when and where to do your pre-travel tests can be stressful, especially given the requirements relating to testing on arrival in the UK.

So, we’ve pulled together a quick guide to pre-travel tests for holidaymakers, along with the essential information you’ll need to know before booking your test.

What tests do I need to travel abroad?

Unvaccinated travellers will generally need to provide a negative test result from a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or antigen test to travel abroad. In some cases, even fully vaccinated travellers will need to show a negative result, so it’s important to read the entry requirements for your destination.

Many countries that require pre-travel testing will only accept PCR tests. There are some exceptions, but if you’re heading to a country where you need to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test, it will almost always need to be a PCR test.

Be sure not to confuse these tests with antibody blood tests, which reveal whether you’ve had Covid-19 in the past.

When do I need to do a pre-travel test?

The timeframe for testing is another reason it’s important to check the rules, as it will vary from country to country as well as by type of test. In general, you will need to take a PCR test within the 72 before your arrival in another country or an antigen test (if accepted) within the 48 hours before your arrival.

The turnaround time for pre-travel tests vary too. Some London clinics can provide PCR test results within 6 hours (for a hefty fee), but the majority of PCR test providers guarantee results within 48 hours. Antigen test results are often ready within an hour.

What tests do I need to return to the UK?

Currently, anyone arriving in the UK will need to do a pre-departure test. This can be a PCR, LAMP or antigen (often referred to as a lateral flow) test and it must be taken within three days of your arrival in the UK.

You can often organise rapid antigen tests at the airport of your destination; the airport’s website should list its providers. You can check in advance the types of tests available (ensure it meets the UK’s performance standard requirements), how quickly you can expect results and whether you can get a booking in time for your trip home. Alternatively, many big tourist resorts are well set up for testing: many companies will send what is needed to your hotel, or you can visit a service in your resort.

If you’re returning from a green list destination, or are fully vaccinated and returning from an amber country, you will also need to do a PCR test on or before your second day back in the UK. You should organise your day two test before you travel. For England, this should be booked through government-approved private test providers. Scotland and Wales require you to book your test through the CTM portal. For return to Northern Ireland, you can choose either option. For more information, check the government website for your home country:

Unvaccinated travellers returning from an amber country will have to quarantine at home for ten days, and will have to take a pre-departure test and two PCR tests when back, on days two and eight. You can book your tests via the same government links above.

Some airlines and travel company are also assisting travellers with organising test packages. TUI, for example, have partnered with a number of test clinics to provide their customers with testing packages. Prices with TUI start at £20 for a ‘Green Package’, which includes a return-to-England antigen test and a day two PCR test.

Can I do my tests at home?

It’s very important to check the rules relating to the pre-travel test you’ll need to do. While most destinations will accept tests that are done at home then couriered to a laboratory, a small number of destinations state that the test needs to be done in a clinic.

Either way, you’ll need to obtain a certificate confirming the negative result. Always check the FCDO entry advice to confirm the exact requirements. If you’re flying or cruising to a destination, the airline or cruise line will be able to provide information about entry guidelines.

Where can I get a PCR test for travel abroad?

There are hundreds of clinics and laboratories that sell Covid-19 tests for pre-travel purposes, as well as tests for anyone arriving into England or Northern Ireland (remember, if you’re arriving in Scotland or Wales, you must use the CTM portal).

If you’re doing a test for travel purposes, you need to make sure the clinic is accredited and will offer a travel certificate.

Although the NHS offers PCR tests, these are not suitable for pre-travel testing. It’s essential that that the testing provider is accredited by Public Health England, and can provide a ‘Fit to Fly’ certificate – a medical certificate, issued by a doctor, confirming your fitness to fly. These can only be issued if you test negative for Covid-19.

How much does a pre-travel PCR test cost?

Unless you’re paying for same-day results (which can cost as much as £500), expect to pay between £40 and £200 for a private PCR test.

How do I do a PCR test?

Although a few tests require a saliva sample, the vast majority require a swab to be taken from the back of the throat and from the nose. If you’ve ordered a test to do at home, it should come with detailed instructions, but as a general rule, you’ll need to gently rub a cotton bud over the tonsils, before inserting the bud around one inch into each nostril.

“Follow the instructions and don't be afraid of gagging,” says Nick Burnett at C19 Testing, one of the leading providers of pre-travel Covid tests. “If you gag, you're doing it right!”

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