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.

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

Over 75% 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.

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 £99 and £200, 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. Some are available on the High Street; for example, many branches of Boots* are offering tests for £120 with a 48-hour turnaround.

There are also testing centres at a number of UK airports, notably Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, but do remember that these tests are not part of the boarding process; it takes a day or two to get the results.

Home testing kits are also available but we generally do not recommend these for travel because it takes even longer to get the results. However, if you are travelling to a country that permits up to seven days to elapse from testing to departure, they may be suitable.

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.

Book PCR tests >>

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.

In Europe, travellers to Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland and Jersey can opt to reduce their time in quarantine by taking one or more additional tests.

In Iceland, all arriving passengers must choose between 14 days of quarantine or two tests, one on arrival and a second five or six days later.

If both tests are negative you will no longer need to quarantine. Normally travellers pay ISK 11,000 (£65) for their first test and get the second test for free, but during December 2020 and January 2021 all tests are free.

Taking multiple tests is also common in Caribbean countries. Bahamas, Barbados and Grenada require a second test from every traveller on the fourth or fifth day of their stay.

To visit the British Virgin Islands or Dominica, travellers must provide proof of a negative test prior to arrival and then take two further tests, one on arrival and another four or five days later in order to come out of 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
Andorra1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required (See entry requirements for France and Spain) Quarantine in the UK
Antigua Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Aruba1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Bahamas1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Barbados Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Mandatory 2nd PCR test 5 days after arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Cambodia Yes (All land borders are closed) PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Quarantine while awaiting results of 2nd test on arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Cape Verde1 Yes (Travel from Cape Verde to the UK is banned until further notice) PCR or Antigen test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Croatia1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Cuba Yes PCR test No quarantine required (2nd PCR test on arrival) Quarantine in the UK
Cyprus1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 Quarantine in the UK
Egypt1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Gambia1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 Quarantine in the UK
Germany1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Test 5 days after arrival can reduce time in quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Greece Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd mandatory test on landing for all arrivals from the UK) Quarantine in the UK
Grenada Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test 4 days after arrival to end quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Jersey Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Testing after 5 and 10 days can reduce time spent in quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Kenya1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
Monaco1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required (See entry requirements for France) Quarantine in the UK
Oman1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (2nd test on arrival + 3rd on Day 8) Quarantine in the UK
Slovakia1 Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Release from quarantine possible after 2nd test on Day 5) Quarantine in the UK
South Africa1 Yes (Travel from South Africa to the UK is banned until further notice) PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
St Lucia Yes PCR test Quarantine for UK arrivals3 (Arrivals restricted to hotel during 14 days of quarantine) Quarantine in the UK
Tanzania1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required Quarantine in the UK
UAE1 Yes PCR test No quarantine required (Arrivals in Abu Dhabi may be asked to quarantine) Quarantine in the UK

The information provided above is updated regularly - most recently on 19 January 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 - country by country

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Test to Release - arrival in the UK

The UK government requires all international travellers to self-isolate for 10 days when arriving in the UK unless travelling from countries and regions on the travel corridor - quarantine exemption list, which are considered 'COVID safe'.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all maintain their own separate lists of 'safe' countries, so there are differences, and the lists are not all updated at the same time. Quarantine rules differ further since England launched its 'Test to Release' scheme on 15 December 2020.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the full 10 days of self-isolation are still required, but travellers arriving in England can obtain early release from quarantine if they can produce a negative test taken on the fifth full day of self-isolation.

Travellers can opt into the 'Test to Release' scheme when completing their passenger locator form to book and pay for their test with an approved private COVID-19 test provider before they arrive in England.

Updates to travel corridors >>

Approved COVID-19 Test to Release providers

  • 123 Everything Genetic Ltd
  • 20/30 Labs
  • AA Latus Health
  • Abacus Testing
  • Abicare Health Solutions Ltd (Riva Health)
  • Agilis Health Ltd
  • AssuredScreening.com
  • Avante Health Ltd
  • Avicenna Health - Chigwell Private GP
  • Better2Know
  • BioGrad Laboratories
  • Blue Horizon Medicals
  • C&H Esher Ltd - Central Pharmacy Esher
  • Chronomics
  • Circular1 Health
  • Citydoc Medical Limited
  • Collinson/Oxsed
  • Concepta Diagnostics - home of MyHealthChecked
  • Concepto Clinic
  • DNA Workplace
  • DocTap
  • Doctors Clinic Group
  • EdgCARE - Private Community Family Doctors
  • ExpressTest powered by Cignpost Diagnostics
  • GP Plus Ltd
  • Halo Verify
  • Heathrow Medical Services LLP
  • MDNA Life Sciences (UK) Ltd
  • MDX HEALTHCARE LTD trading as MEDIX PHARMACY
  • Mayfield Clinic Oxford
  • Medical Diagnosis Ltd
  • Midland Health
  • Midlands Ultrasound & Medical Services
  • Moviemedico
  • NPH Group MDNA Life Sciences Partnership
  • NPH Group
  • Nationwide Pathology
  • Oncologica
  • Pharmadoctor
  • Phoenix Pathology
  • Prenetics/iDNA
  • Private GP Clinic
  • Private GP Services
  • Qured
  • Randox Laboratories
  • Rejuven8
  • Rightangled
  • SYNLAB
  • Samedaydoctor
  • Screen 4
  • Source BioScience
  • The Health Suite
  • The London Clinic
  • The London General Practice
  • The Mayfair GP
  • The Medic Clinic
  • The Scientists Laboratory Ltd
  • The Walcote Practice
  • Wren Healthcare
  • Yourgene Health UK Ltd

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.

United Airlines has introduced one such rapid molecular test in a pilot scheme that is offering free pre-departure tests on some of its routes including one from Newark to London. The results of these tests are available in under 15 minutes.

Airlines are keen to demonstrate that effective pre-departure testing like this can prevent cases of coronavirus from crossing borders and thereby eliminate the need for quarantine. Think how much easier travel would be in a quarantine-free world!

Where to get PCR tests

Back to tests

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, such as in Liverpool recently and in Slovakia and Austria.

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 and the Canary Islands.

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
Corona Test Centre - COVID-19 Antigen test* Test centres from £95

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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:

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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.

Corona Test Centre: COVID-19 PCR test from £135

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