COVID-19 testing for travel explained

When it comes to travel, one of the main tools health authorities around the world have employed in the fight against coronavirus is 'testing'. This includes pre-departure tests, on arrival tests at destination airports and on return tests to reduce time spent in quarantine.

For a full summary of Covid-19 statistics and regulations by country, and to compare destinations around the world, visit our interactive Covid-19 travel planner

COVID testing - the new reality for international travel © Patrik Hedström - Flickr Creative Commons
COVID testing - the new reality for international travel © Patrik Hedström - Flickr Creative Commons

How Covid-19 tests are helping us travel

Nearly 90% of countries now require proof of a negative Covid-19 test either from some or all of the people who want to cross their borders.

Some countries require everyone arriving to produce test results, others are selective about who needs a test and, occasionally, arrivals from specific parts of a country are required to take a test while others are not.

In most cases, these tests have to be performed before flying as pre-departure tests but some countries will also permit testing on arrival instead.

Please note: it is very important you understand exactly what type of test is required by the country you are travelling to and that you follow the requirements precisely.

Make sure the clinic you choose to carry out your test can produce the results in the format required. If you do not, you may be prevented from boarding your flight or be required to quarantine on arrival.

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Pre-departure testing

Typically, travellers take a pre-departure test a few days before their flight and arrive with a certificate that shows they are not infected. The test involves having swab samples taken from the back of the throat and nose which are then sent to be processed.

Where to get pre-departure tests

There are three important things to know about pre-departure testing:

  • those provided by the NHS are not suitable for travel
  • they must be paid for and are likely to cost between £60 to over £150, and
  • tests must be carried out no more than a certain number of hours prior to departure

Tests will likely need to be performed by a certified laboratory or clinic and the easiest way to find one is to search for one online. LetsGetChecked, for example, provides home testing kits for £99 with a turnaround time of 24-72 hours.

Others are available on the High Street. Many branches of Boots*, for example, are offering tests also for £99 with a 48-hour turnaround.

There are also testing centres at all the major UK airports, but do remember if you are taking a PCR test, that these tests are not part of the boarding process; it takes a day or two to get the results.

If you decide to use a home testing kit, make sure the country you are travelling to accepts results from a home testing kit, as not all countries do.

Top tip: take your passport and flight details with you when you attend the testing centre so these can be included on your test results report.

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Please note: NHS Covid-19 tests are not suitable for travel.

On arrival in destination

As well as requiring travellers to take pre-departure tests, some countries also insist on additional tests on arrival or within a few days. These are intended to screen all arrivals to the maximum to prevent an outbreak of the disease.

While, elsewhere, countries take a more relaxed approach and offer travellers the option of further tests to reduce their time in quarantine.

Please note: it's important to check the local requirements and entry rules before you travel. Below we've provided up-to-date information for popular destinations.

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Which destinations require a test?

The following table shows popular destinations that currently require some or all arrivals to either provide a negative COVID-19 test result or complete a test on arrival and/or during their stay. Select a country or region to see more details and link to up-to-date information.

Region Open for tourism Pre-departure On arrival in destination On return
Algarve1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Andorra1 Yes (See entry requirements for France & Spain) PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Antigua Yes PCR test No quarantine required (All tourists are carefully monitored in their hotels) Quarantine in the UK
Aruba1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Azores1 Yes (Direct flights from UK to Azores resume on 5th June) PCR test No quarantine required (Further tests required on Day 6 & Day 12) Quarantine in the UK
Bahamas1 Yes (Tests not required for fully vaccinated arrivals) PCR test No quarantine required (Mandatory 2nd test on Day 5 after arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Barbados Yes (Vaccinated passengers subject to single test on arrival) PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Antigen test on arrival + mandatory 2nd PCR on Day 5 after arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Bulgaria1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Cambodia Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 Quarantine in the UK
Cape Verde1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required (Test can be PCR or Antigen) Quarantine in the UK
Croatia1 Yes   No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Cuba Yes PCR test No quarantine required (2nd PCR test on arrival + isolation pending result) Quarantine in the UK
Cyprus1 Yes (From 10th May fully vaccinated travellers from the UK are free to enter) PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Egypt1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
France1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Mandatory 2nd test after 7 days of quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Gambia1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test on arrival from UK + quarantine pending result) Quarantine in the UK
Germany1 Yes PCR or Antigen test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Greece Yes   No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Grenada Yes (Vaccinated arrivals subject to 2nd PCR test on arrival + short quarantine pending results) PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test 5 days after arrival to end quarantine on Day7) Quarantine in the UK
Ireland Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test on Day 5 to shorten quarantine)
Italy1 Yes PCR or Antigen test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test on Day 5 to end quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Jamaica1 Yes (Direct flights from the UK to Jamaica are expected to resume after 17 May) PCR or Antigen test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Jersey Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Mandatory further tests 5 &10 days after arrival)
Kenya1 Yes (Flights between Kenya & the UK are currently suspended) PCR test or Vaccination Quarantine for UK arrivals3 Quarantine in the UK
Madeira1 Yes (Direct flights from UK to Madeira resume on 21st May)   No quarantine required (2nd test on arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Maldives Yes PCR test No quarantine required (Tourists are exempt from quarantine but restricted to their islands) Quarantine in the UK
Malta1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Monaco1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (See entry requirements for France) Quarantine in the UK
Poland1 Yes (Quarantine not required for vaccinated arrivals) PCR or Antigen test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test after Day 1 to exit quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Portugal1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Seychelles1 Yes (Currently there are no direct flights between UK & Seychelles) PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Slovakia1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Release from quarantine after 2nd test on Day 8 or on Day 2 for those who are vaccinated) Quarantine in the UK
Slovenia1 Yes   No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
South Africa1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Sri Lanka Yes (Vaccinated arrivals are exempt from quarantine) PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Test on arrival + on Day 7) Quarantine in the UK
St Lucia Yes PCR test No quarantine required (Arrivals restricted to hotel during 14 days of quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Switzerland1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Thailand Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Quarantine in government facility) Quarantine in the UK
Tunisia1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Early release from quarantine with 2nd test on Day 5) Quarantine in the UK
Turkey1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
UAE1 Yes (Quarantine for arrivals in Abu Dhabi) PCR test No quarantine required (Some arrivals may be required to take a further test) Quarantine in the UK

The information provided above is updated regularly - most recently on 19 May 2021.

  • 1 = UK FCDO advises against all but essential travel to this country
  • 2 = Non-resident foreign nationals are not permitted to land
  • 3 = Generally 14 days of self-isolation, but the number of days can vary

Travel advice by country

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Test to Release - arrival in the UK

Currently, the UK government requires all international travellers to self-isolate for 10 days when arriving in the UK with the option, unless they are arriving from a red-list country, to take a test on day five for early release from quarantine. To opt in to the Test to Release scheme, travellers must book and pay for their test with an approved Covid-19 test provider before they arrive in the UK.

From May 2021 the rules on quarantine and testing will change when a new traffic light system is due to start. Countries will be assigned to either red, amber or green lists with different rules on testing and quarantining for each.

About UK travel list >>

Approved Covid-19 Test to Release providers

The following providers are among those approved to offer the Covid-19 Test to Release service. For a more complete list of providers, follow the button below.

More about providers >>

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Types of Covid-19 test

There are broadly two different types of test to detect a Covid-19 infection: molecular tests and antigen tests. There is also a third antibody test but this cannot tell if you're currently infected, only whether you've had it in the past.

Molecular tests, including PCR tests, are more accurate than antigen tests which is why they have become the gold-standard in testing for travel. Antigen tests, however, have a more important role to play in government-sponsored mass testing programs.

PCR & other molecular tests

PCR and variants of PCR, which stands for polymerase chain reaction, is the most common type of molecular test. The PCR process was developed over 30 years ago as a means of amplifying very small quantities of DNA and is very accurate.

However, it is a time-consuming process which at the moment can only be carried out in a laboratory which means that it can take 48 hours or more before the results are known.

Recent innovations in molecular amplification techniques (NAAT, RT-PCR and LAMP) have started to reduce processing times, and now there are a few that do not require a laboratory and can produce results in under 30 minutes. These may bring some big changes to testing for travel, but it is still early days.

Where to get PCR tests

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Antigen tests

Antigen tests employ a different method to identify the coronavirus. Instead of focusing on DNA, antigen tests search instead for Covid-19 proteins.

This is a much simpler approach and does not require a laboratory. Samples can usually be processed in less than 30 minutes and it is also a lot cheaper.

However, antigen tests are not as accurate as molecular PCR tests, so the PCR test has become the one that most countries require you to take for travel purposes, and for England's Test to Release.

This is unfortunate because it is not as if antigen tests are not accurate. They are very good at detecting coronavirus in most cases and can be used very effectively in cutting transmission (the 'R' rate) when employed in mass testing of populations.

That said, there are a number of countries that have recently said they will accept antigen tests as an alternative to PCR tests, most notably Italy, Denmark, Norway and Jamaica.

Given that these tests can become part of the boarding process, the whole landscape of testing for travel could change if they gain wider acceptance.

Where to get antigen tests

Test Completed Price
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Antibody tests

Antibody tests cannot detect coronavirus infection, so no government requires them for travel. However, they are widely available for travellers who are interested in finding out if they have been infected in the past, and tests are easily performed at home by taking a small sample of blood with a finger prick.

Where to get antibody tests

Covid-19 antibody tests can be purchased online from many popular pharmacies. The tests are usually sent via post and carried out at home. Here is a selection of providers:

Covid testing deals >>

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Travel advice: stay up-to-date with the latest Covid-19 rules, regulations and advice from countries worldwide in our travel advice section.

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