Where to find at-home COVID tests — including for free — and how to use them correctly

·5 min read
The Ellume COVID 19 Home Test
Ellume's home test kit includes an app to walk users through the process.Ellume
  • At-home coronavirus tests are in high demand amidst the Omicron surge.

  • You can buy "rapid" antigen tests, or PCR tests, which are the "gold standard" and are usually processed in a lab.

  • Some states offer free at-home testing.

It might be time to stock up on home coronavirus tests again — if you can find them.

As COVID cases surged in recent weeks, Google searches for "home coronavirus test" also spiked. People seeking tests have found drugstore shelves empty and Amazon inventory sold out.

Even if demand for testing is climbing to early pandemic levels, at least the technology for testing at home has improved since 2020.

Now, you can buy a variety of tests online or at the drugstore, some of which return results in as little as 15 minutes.

In some circumstances, it's possible to get free at-home tests. According to the White House, that will become even easier come January, when the federal government promises to start mailing out 500 million free, at-home COVID tests to people who need them.

Here's how to get hold of at-home coronavirus tests, and how to use them correctly to ensure an accurate result.

You can buy rapid antigen tests in pharmacies

Most of the over-the-counter, at-home testing options are rapid antigen tests, which can return results within 10 to 15 minutes.

The Abbott BinaxNOW, Ellume Covid-19 Home, and Quidel QuickVue tests are among the most widely available rapid antigen tests authorized by the FDA. They're sold in most drugstores, including CVS, Walgreens, and Duane Reade.

They cost between $20 and $30, but their availability might be limited right now due to high demand.

The majority of at-home antigen tests use some sort of nasal swab, and some of them come with an app or instructional video to walk you through the process.

Abbott and Quidel's tests both show two lines for a positive test and one line for a negative, similar to a pregnancy test. Ellume's rapid test returns results via an app.

You can get PCR and rapid tests delivered by Amazon, DoorDash, or a private lab

Amazon has sold rapid antigen tests and at-home collection kits for PCR testing. At the time of publication, most or all of the antigen tests were listed as "currently unavailable" with no restock date.

The site currently stocks an Amazon-brand PCR kit for $39.99, as well as a similar nasal swab kit from EmpowerDX and a saliva test kit made by DxTerity, each for $99.

Home PCR test kits are more expensive than antigen tests, but they're also better at diagnosing COVID-19. Once you send away your nasal swab or saliva sample, you can expect results within one or two business days of the lab receiving your kit.

The food delivery service DoorDash recently announced it now delivers PCR tests on behalf of Vault Health and Everlywell in 12 cities with more to come. The Vault kit, which includes a video consultation to supervise saliva collection, costs $119. The Everywell kit, a self-guided lower nasal swab, costs $109. Both are available for same-day delivery on the DoorDash app.

It's also possible to order self-collection kits directly from labs, like the Pixel kit from LabCorp.

Some states and cities offer free at-home tests

Residents of Colorado, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington are eligible for free at-home tests, which they can order online via each state's website. The cities of New York City, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia are offering the same service.

Over Christmas, as tests have been in short supply, there have been upticks in people lining up at clinics for in-person testing, saying their local website wasn't working. However, health departments insist there is more on the way.

Antigen testing has its limitations

home testing thumb
home testing thumb

Ellume and Abbott Laboratories offer at-home rapid antigen tests.Ellume, Jeffrey Rosenthal, Andrea Michelson

Taking a rapid antigen test is currently the quickest way to determine your COVID status without leaving the house, but that doesn't mean it's your most accurate testing option. Antigen tests aren't as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR test, which means you're more likely to get a false negative.

Antigen tests work best for confirming that a symptomatic infection is COVID-19, so these are good ones to have on hand for the next time you feel sick. But if you're testing to rule out an asymptomatic infection, you may want to try a different option.

For more sensitive testing, get a PCR test and send your swab away

You can also purchase a home test kit for PCR testing, which is currently the "gold standard" for coronavirus diagnostics.

While antigen tests screen for specific proteins in the coronavirus, PCR tests take a closer look for any trace of the virus' genetic material. The process usually takes place in a lab, but some test kits let you collect your own samples at home.

There are some fully at-home PCR tests in the works from Cue and Lucira, but neither is available at retailers yet. Lucira is selling the test directly to healthcare providers, and the Cue COVID-19 test is expected to be available for direct consumer purchase later this fall.

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