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Updated May 21, 2021
(Published December 11, 2020)
Considering a holiday this summer? For many destinations, it’s likely you’ll need a negative Covid-19 test to enter and, with the government’s new ‘traffic light’ system, to return home too.
But with hundreds of test providers offering a wide range of testing options, working out how, when and where to do your pre-travel PCR test can be stressful, especially given the requirements relating to testing on arrival in the UK.
So, we’ve pulled together a guide to PCR test providers for holidaymakers, along with the essential information you’ll need to know before booking your test.
A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is the most common type of test used to detect Covid-19. It does this by detecting the virus’ genetic information, thereby confirming whether the virus is present, and if someone is currently infected.
It’s important not to confuse PCR tests with antibody blood tests (which reveal whether you’ve had Covid-19 in the past) and antigen tests. Antigen tests are similar to PCR tests but are not widely used in the UK. They provide results in a shorter amount of time, but are less sensitive.
Most countries that require pre-travel testing will only accept PCR tests. There are a few 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. The results will come back as negative, positive or inconclusive. An inconclusive result is rare but it can happen.
Currently, anyone arriving in Scotland and England from a green list destination will need to do a pre-departure test. This can be a PCR, LAMP or antigen (often referred to as a lateral flow) test. Travellers will then need to do a second test on or before their second day back in the UK. Both of these tests need to be ordered prior to your departure from the country you’re returning from.
Anyone 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. These tests must be provided by one of the government-accredited testing providers; most offer two-test packages. These start at around £99.
Some airlines and travel company are also assisting travellers with organising test package. 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-the-UK antigen test and a day two PCR test.
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 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (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.
This is another reason it’s important to check the rules. The testing timeframe varies from country to country. For example, if you’re going to Portugal, you’ll need to take a test 72 hours before the departure time of your flight. If you’re going to Malta (which is currently on the amber list but is expected to go green in early June) you’ll need to do a test 72 hours before you arrive.
The turnaround time for pre-travel tests vary. Some London clinics can provide results within 6 hours (for a hefty fee), but the majority of testing providers guarantee results within 48 hours.
There are hundreds of clinics and laboratories that sell Covid-19 tests for pre-travel purposes, as well as tests for anyone arriving into the UK.
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.
Unless you’re paying for same-day results (which can cost as much as £500), expect to pay between £60 and £200 for a private PCR test. To help you get an idea of the cost and turnaround time for a PCR testing service, we’ve compared ten providers across the country in the table below.
(Note: This table focuses on pre-travel tests suitable for “fit to fly” purposes, and it’s important to bear in mind that costs for pre-arrival tests and the tests you’ll need to do in the UK (after travelling abroad) will often be different to these pre-travel tests.)
In-clinic or at home?
Number of testing locations if testing in-clinic
Within 24 hours of sample receipt
£65 at home/£99 in-store
Within 48 hours of test
At home and in store
206 in-store testing locations
£119 at home/£150 in clinic
Within two working days of sample receipt
At home and in store
Five: Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge and Southampton
Within 48 hours of sample receipt
Same day if tested before 10am. If swab is taken after 10am, the results will arrive the next day
Next day (if sample taken before 3pm)
Eight locations in London (Superdrug said – in early May 2021 – they hope to add 18 more locations “in the near future”).
Same day, next day, two day
Six: five in London, one in Manchester
Next day (by 6.30pm next day) and express (by 5.00am next day)
At home and at clinic
Nine: Chiswick, Orpington, Cobham (Surrey), Southampton, Dartford, Crawley, Wolverhampton, Sandwich (Kent), Buckhurst Hill (Essex)
Next day (before 5.30pm)
Next day by 8pm
One (Harley Street, London)
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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The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides valuable up-to-date travel advice for British citizens abroad. It is the best resource for reliable safety and security information. You can also find other important details, such as local laws, passport information and visa requirements. Stay safe abroad – check the FCDO before you travel.