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Note: Certain regulations mentioned below, including the CDC's requirement of a negative COVID-19 test to enter the U.S., have changed since publication. Check the CDC's news page for the most up-to-date information.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all air travelers over the age of 2 “need to get a COVID-19 viral test (regardless of vaccination status or citizenship) no more than one day before returning to the U.S.”
So if you plan on traveling outside the U.S., you need to find a COVID test in your destination country and get the test results within 24 hours of your flight home. That’s a pretty quick turnaround, and the added step can add a lot of stress to your trip — especially if you’re visiting a country where you don't speak the language or somewhere remote.
A negative COVID test is required for some travel, and you also need one to return to the U.S. Here are some tips on how to snag a COVID test before returning home.
Tips for COVID testing for returning to the U.S.
1. Ask about local testing options when you book accommodations
Finding a COVID test may differ depending on what type of accommodation you book. Whether you plan to stay at a hostel, hotel or vacation rental, reach out before you officially reserve your accommodation to find out where you can get a COVID test.
Many hotels and hostels offer COVID testing on site, making this option more appealing.
Disappointingly, the cost of a COVID test at a hotel or hostel may be higher than what you’d find at a local testing center. Even so, the added layer of convenience, especially for travelers who go to destinations where they don't speak the local language, is worth considering. The ability to communicate in English at on-site testing centers is likely higher at tourist-oriented accommodations than at a community COVID testing site.
You may even get lucky and find that your hotel provides COVID testing completely free of charge.
2. Budget extra days in the big city ahead of takeoff
When planning travel that’s off the beaten track, it could make sense to spend the last two nights of your trip in a larger city to make it easier to find a testing site, especially since the U.S. requires a test to be taken within a day of your return flight.
Say, for example, you’re going to El Chalten, Argentina, for a hiking trip. It might be difficult to find a COVID test with such a fast turnaround in this smaller city. You might be better off allocating the last two days of your trip to a larger city (e.g., Buenos Aires), as finding a test there will likely be easier.
3. Join Facebook traveler groups
Last year, I was staying at an Airbnb in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, and needed to find a COVID test before my return flight to the U.S. Instead of reaching out to my Airbnb host, I searched through the Playa Del Carmen digital nomads group on Facebook to see if anyone asked a similar question.
I found several posts recommending a testing center that was only a 10-minute walk from my apartment. I had to rely on my basic Spanish skills and Google Translate on my phone to ask all the questions I needed. However, the process was quick and easy.
4. Bring an at-home COVID test with you
In the event that you’re unable to find a testing center or one that has a quick enough turnaround, you’ll be relieved to know that the CDC says certain at-home tests can satisfy entry requirements. Even better, the test may be reimbursable by your insurance, which would greatly reduce your costs compared with obtaining a COVID test abroad.
You can get a self-test delivered to your home address to take with you on vacation. The test needs to meet the following criteria:
The test is a SARS-CoV-2 viral test with Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The test must include a telehealth service that provides virtual real-time supervision.
The telehealth provider must confirm your identity, observe the sample collection, confirm the result and issue a report that the test meets the CDC’s monitored COVID test requirements.
Airlines must be able to review and confirm your identity and the test result details.
An example of a test that meets the conditions is from eMed, an organization that sells at-home COVID tests for travel. The company is currently selling a pack of six tests for $150. The tests are FDA-authorized for travel and treatment, and eMed will supply a receipt that you can submit to your insurance for reimbursement.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of Jan. 15, private insurers are required to fully reimburse the cost of up to eight at-home COVID-19 tests purchased over the counter per person monthly.
Buying these at-home tests can be a great way to use insurance to cover the cost of your COVID test.
Make sure to order at-home tests well in advance of your trip in case the shipping takes longer than expected.
Final thoughts on finding a COVID test to return to the U.S.
If you plan on traveling abroad, you’ll need to take a COVID test within one day of your return flight to the U.S. Regardless of the type of trip, these tips can help simplify the process of finding a COVID test while you’re abroad. If you’d rather not deal with finding a testing center while you’re enjoying your vacation, you can order at-home COVID tests to take with you.
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