The current regulation to enter the US is that you must have a negative COVID test within 1 day of returning to the US (view current CDC requirements here). Coordinating a COVID test during the last day(s) of your trip can take up valuable time and money. Depending on where you are traveling from, you may have to drive an hour or more to get to a clinic and pay anywhere from $50 - $90 USD for a rapid antigen (not PCR) test. It's extra fun if you are traveling without your own vehicle and don't want to be unsafe and ride on public transportation due to COVID!
As with any new regulation, after the initial gouge, businesses start figuring out ways to make the process more convenient and economic. Some airports (such as SJO in Costa Rica) are now providing tests right there at the airport! You board a shuttle for a nearby swab-up-the-nose location and have your results emailed to you within an hour or so for a cost of $65 USD and about 2 hours of your time (you need to leave enough of a time buffer before your flight). In addition, the major airlines have actually partnered with COVID test manufacturers to make the whole process much less painful.
At-Home COVID-19 TestOn some of my recent trips back to the US, I used an at-home COVID test-in-a-box! In short, you self-administer the test while online live with a telehealth agent, then they email you the results or you get them on their associated mobile app. View my experience here: My First At-Home COVID Test.
The test I bought (and maybe all of them) must be mailed to a US address, so the idea is to order a test before you travel abroad, bring it along with you, and take the test before you fly home.
What You Need
- An unopened at-home COVID test
- Your ID
- A flat surface for the test contents
- A stable internet connection
- Approximately 30 minutes
- Access to email or related app for results
The Testing Process
- Log on to a live session on your phone or laptop
- The telehealth agent scans your test QR code, watches you open the test, and walks you through the process
- Open the card, put drops in card hole, swab nose, stuff into card, close card
- Wait 15 minutes with camera on test
- A telehealth agent comes back on the line and reads the results with you
- Results are emailed to your right away and are also available in the related app
Keep in mind before logging on to take your test that your camera should be pointing at the test lying on a flat surface so the person supervising your session can see it at all times. I recommend having your laptop on the counter, the test in front of it, and you to be sitting low in front of it all. That way the person watching you open the box and perform the test can see everything without having to move around. The technician even complimented me on this setup! LOL
Then you'll get a "You're up next!" screen and very quickly someone will be on the line. The "certified guides" are friendly and clear about each step.
The telehealth agent will ask you to keep the camera pointed at the test during the 15 minute waiting period, but apparently if you get disconnected, you can call the number on the screen to have someone read the test results. Then they leave you and you are allowed to get up and walk away from the computer during this time but make sure you're back before the 15-minute timer runs out!
The results come in the form of "1 line or 2" (yes, similar to a pregnancy test!).
Within 15 minutes you'll get an email from eMed with a password-protected PDF containing your results, and you're also able to access the results on the NAVICA app under Results, I can share/print the results to a PDF.
Then depending on your airline, you can upload the PDF to the pre-approval section of their site, or just bring it with you to your flight. When I uploaded my results to United Airlines, It only took about 10 minutes to get the approval message from United after uploading my test results. When I checked in at the airport, they didn't even ask to see my test results since they were already uploaded and approved - so easy! When I used it to fly on Delta Airlines, I simply showed them my test results on the NAVICA app at the boarding gate,
What Test to BuyFirst of all, you have to be very particular about which test you buy. The tests at the drugstores WILL NOT WORK for international travel. Maybe local stores will start carrying the correct ones eventually, but right now, they do not. You need one that includes telehealth services (AKA video supervision), which so far I have only seen available online.
The safest way to get the correct test is to see if your airline has links on their website to their partner / approved tests. United Airlines has partnered with Abbott BinaxNOW which you can buy at eMed or Optum, while American Airlines has additional links to LetsGetChecked and Fit to Fly from Qured. That's not to say that the airlines won't accept other tests (I used BinaxNOW no problem on Delta Airlines) but it's all so new right now that there's very little concrete information. Given that the airlines accept printed results from any (accredited) podunk clinic that they know nothing about, you're probably safe with almost any of these major players.
There seem to be 4 parts to the test, with some overlap.
1) The manufacturer and test name (e.g. Abbott BinaxNOW)
2) The place you buy it from (e.g. eMed or Optum).
3) Who you do your online test with (e.g. eMed).
4) The corresponding app where you can get your results (e.g. NAVICA).
But none of that matters too much as long as you follow the links from the airlines to buy an appropriate test and then follow all the instructions.
Where to Buy the Right TestHere are some examples of the different tests and current cost.
Abbott BinaxNOW with the NAVICA appYou can buy them at Optum for $69 for a 2-pack or $99 for a 3-pack.
You can buy a 6-pack at eMed for $150.
They claim it ships same day.