Coronavirus tests are needed for international travel. But they can cost more than a flight.

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·5 min read

Thinking of traveling internationally?

On top of uncertainty over waves linked to the delta variant and the emergence of the omicron variant, there's the matter of those coronavirus tests needed to travel: Per person, they can cost hundreds of dollars depending on the place of departure, the destination, the type of test and the company providing them.

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While many countries offer free or subsidized coronavirus testing, when it comes to tests to meet travel requirements, governments often rely on or require private companies to administer them, rather than strained public health systems.

The cost of doing business in a volatile industry, coupled with limited government oversight of prices and services, has yielded some startling results.

PCR test prices for travel can vary widely - and for many individuals and families, prohibitively - from under $10 in Mumbai to about $80 in Kenya to nearly $400 in Kansai, Japan. Less sensitive rapid antigen tests, required within 24 hours of flying to the United States as of Dec. 3, can cost about $50 in Britain - and $134 at the airport in Oslo.

Related video: Do travel restrictions stop the spread of coronavirus variants?

Just within Europe, PCR tests for travel can be several times the cost of a one-way flight between countries. In West Africa, where airfare between neighbors was already notoriously costly, PCR testing requirements for arrivals can add on hundreds of dollars, Quartz Africa reported.

In a September survey by the Washington D.C.-based International Air Transportation Association, 70% of passengers said the cost of testing was "a significant barrier to travel."

PCR tests are the gold standard for detecting the coronavirus. Many countries require a negative PCR result within 48 or 72 hours of travel to enter; others mandate tests upon arrival depending on vaccination status.

Some governments have imposed price controls: In August, the United Arab Emirates mandated a nearly $14 PCR test price cap and a 24-hour turnaround. In India's Maharashtra state, regular PCR tests are set at $8. As of early December, rapid PCR tests at the state's Mumbai airport are capped at just over $50.

France had been offering free coronavirus testing for tourists - until it changed its policy in July, citing how French tourists had to pay in other countries. The tourist price was set at $55 for a PCR test and about $33 for an antigen test, France 24 reported.

But with the turnaround for free or insurance-covered testing taking days in many cities and countries, those who can afford it may opt to pay high fees for fast results from private providers to ensure they meet travel conditions.

Following the omicron variant's emergence, Britain in early December began requiring anyone entering its borders to take a PCR test from a private provider and quarantine until the test returned negative. That raised the appeal of same-day test results - with those who could afford it paying about $170, double the price for the typical turnaround.

Like in many countries, Britain's coronavirus testing market has been marred in controversy since the pandemic began.

Consumers accused private companies, some with links to politicians, of returning results late or not at all. A government website listing private providers included companies it had not approved: Some companies advertised tests for just a dozen or so dollars - only to add hidden fees way above the average price. Seeking to game the alphabetical list, others added numbers or punctuation to the start of company names so they'd be listed higher.

Avi Lasarow, CEO of Prenetics, a Britain-based company that tests for the coronavirus and other health issues, said the cost to conduct a PCR test is only about $26. But he said his company priced the test just under $85 because money was needed to cover the cost of 24-hour customer service and the 20% value-added tax (VAT) the government imposed on testing. Also, if a test is positive for the coronavirus, the provider must pay to genetically sequence the sample, a process that can cost hundreds of dollars.

"I think governments are doing their absolute best as they can as the [coronavirus testing] market matures to put guidelines and regulations in place," Lasarow said.

Problems occur, he continued, "if companies or individuals take advantage of that."

A report released in September by Britain's Competition and Markets Authority found that "the prices charged to many consumers [for coronavirus tests] are not explained by high direct costs and that extremely high markups on gross costs are being applied by some of the retail test providers listed on the GOV.UK website."

The agency called for "a combination of regulation and enforcement" but did not endorse a price cap, instead calling on the Department of Health and Social Care to conduct further research.

The Future of Aviation Group, a cross-party organization of British lawmakers lobbying for the aviation sector, in November called on the government to consider nixing VAT for coronavirus testing and other "options to bring the cost of testing down to a minimum or ideally free of charge."

In the meantime, Britain's biggest travel and tourism firm, Tui, and airliners such as British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet, have partnered with private providers to offer customers testing discounts.

Other efforts at reform have stalled. This past summer, lawmakers in the European Union's Renew Europe party pushed for free coronavirus testing for travel within the 27-member bloc, said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch party member. Others pushed back, citing how testing prices, vaccination rates and everyday costs of living vary widely across the continent. E.U. lawmakers in June instead agreed to allocate about $110 million for member states to subsidize testing costs for specific groups, like those who frequently cross borders for work or family.

It was "the minimal" that could be done, in 't Veld said.

Juhi Kore, 24, an Indian citizen studying at Oxford University in Britain, has not been home in two years to see her family. She was hoping to buy tickets to visit in Christmas - but factoring in the costs of coronavirus tests, on top of flights and all the uncertainty over travel restrictions, "being reunited with them in 2021 seems completely impossible," she said.

Travel "feels extremely exclusionary for anyone other than the upper socioeconomic classes," she added.

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