Do I need a Covid PCR test to fly?

Helen Coffey
·4 min read
PCR tests must be done privately in most cases (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
PCR tests must be done privately in most cases (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Italy is the latest country to ask UK arrivals to provide a negative Covid-19 test – and it’s probably not going to be the last to add this to its list of requirements for travellers.

As nations seek to find ways to allow tourists in safely during the pandemic, testing is increasingly being seen as a good alternative to off-putting quarantine measures.

But how can you get a PCR test, how much do they cost, and when should you do one?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a PCR test?

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is designed to directly detect the presence of an antigen. By detecting viral RNA, found in the body before antibodies form, the test is able to detect infection early on, possibly before the carrier has any symptoms.

The test involves taking a swab of the inside of the nose and back of the throat, using a long cotton bud.

Which countries ask for a PCR test?

Italy is asking for a negative Covid-19 test for all UK arrivals, although this can be a “molecular (PCR) or an antigenic test”, according to the Foreign Office.

Popular Caribbean islands, including Bermuda, Aruba, Anguilla and St Lucia, all require a negative test result, as do the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives, Cambodia, Cyprus, Egypt and Jersey.

Germany has designated Northern Ireland, Scotland, North East England, North West England, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales as “high risk” areas, meaning arrivals from these destinations must provide a negative test result or they are required to quarantine for 14 days.

Countries’ entry requirements are changing all the time during the pandemic – check the most up-to-date information on the Foreign Office (FCDO) website.

Can I do it on the NHS?

No. The free NHS test is specifically for people with symptoms who believe they may have coronavirus.

On the FCDO website, it states: “You should not use the NHS testing service to get a test in order to facilitate your travel to another country. You should arrange to take a private test.”

How can I find a test provider?

Googling “private PCR Covid-19 test” will bring up hundreds of results – but beware, not all are created equal. As one journalist wrote in this piece for the Independent, delays in getting the results can easily ruin a trip.

Be sure to go through a lab approved by Ukas, the UK’s National Accreditation Body. It’s also worth checking reviews if there are any – if a lab is consistently returning results late, customers are likely to vent online. Finally, check the type of test required by the country you’re travelling to as they may have different requirements.

How much will it cost?

It varies depending on the lab, but most places seem to charge between £100 and £300; it’s worth shopping around.

Do any countries offer it for free?

Those travelling to Italy can opt to take a free test on arrival instead of getting one beforehand. Travellers will have to self-isolate at their hotel until they get their result (about 24 hours).

Some airports offer rapid testing, with results available in an hour – passengers will be expected to wait at the airport until their result is ready. Smaller airports may not offer testing facilities; arrivals must arrange to be tested elsewhere within 48 hours of entering Italy.

Ras Al Khaima in the UAE is also offering free testing to all international visitors, along with Aruba. Check the FCDO webpage for the country you’re travelling to for information on whether a free test on arrival is offered.

How long do the results take to arrive?

Again, this varies from lab to lab. Some promise same-day results, while others pledge to get back to customers within 36, 48 or 72 hours. The promised turnaround time might play a significant factor when it comes to deciding on which test centre to go for – some countries demand that results are received within quite a tight timeframe.

How long before my trip should I take the test?

This will depend on your destination. Many are very specific about the timeframe you have to work within, eg the test must be taken no more than 72 hours before your arrival. Some stipulate 48 hours, others might say five days. It’s important to calculate correctly – if your negative result does not have a time/date stamp that meets the country’s requirements, it’s unlikely you’ll be let in.

Book your test as far in advance as possible and aim to take it as early as you can within the permissible timeframe.

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