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16 Sep 2021

Covid testing for travel explained - Q&A

Your frequently asked questions answered from where to book day two and eight tests, to whether children must be tested and more
woman taking covid swab test

Travelling abroad during the Covid crisis can be costly and incredibly confusing when it comes to unravelling testing rules. From whether kids need tests, to what happens if you test positive and which provider to choose, there are numerous scenarios to consider.

To make matters more complicated, some rules depend on whether you're fully vaccinated.

If you're feeling anxious over what tests you need to organise for your next holiday, then read on. We've rounded up some common questions to help demystify testing for travel.

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Do you need a Covid test to fly out of the UK to travel abroad?

The UK does not require you to take a test to fly out of the country, but the country you're flying to might ask for one to let you in. Check the entry requirements of the country you intend to travel to through the FCDO website.

What tests do you need when returning to the UK from a foreign country?

You need to take a lateral flow or LAMP test (or PCR but this is more expensive) within 72 hours of your flight's departure time. You must take this test regardless of what country you are travelling from and even if you are fully vaccinated.

The result needs to be returned by the time you board your flight. Without it, you may not be allowed to fly and you could be fined £480 - £500 when you land back in the UK. If the result is inconclusive, you must take another test.

If travelling from Spain you are advised to take a PCR pre-departure test instead of a lateral flow test, but this isn't a legal requirement.

The tests needed when you return to the UK depend on whether you're coming from a green, amber or red list country. You will need at least a day two test in all scenarios. See our travel traffic light Q&A for further details.

Do children need a pre-departure test? Who is exempt from pre-departure testing?

Children under the age of 11 do not need to take a pre-departure test before flying home.

You do not need to take a test if you are travelling to the UK for urgent medical treatment or are accompanying someone who is travelling for urgent medical treatment, and it is not practical for you to get a test before departure.

Exemptions also apply for those with medical conditions that mean you can't take a test, but you must have a note from a medical practitioner ready to present to the check-in desk, airline and Border Force staff.

What is an acceptable pre-departure test?
lateral flow test device

The test - which is required for returning to the UK - must have four numbers after the CE number on the box to be valid. It must also meet performance standards of 97% or more specificity and 80% of more sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. While this sounds confusing, you should scour the website you book through, or ask the place you plan to be tested at whether the test meets these standards. It is your responsibility to get it right.

Proof of the test result needs to be the original, display your name (that matches your passport) and date of birth or age. It must show the date the sample was received, the name and contact details of the test provider and confirmation of the type of device that was used. This information must be in either English, French or Spanish and translations won't be accepted.

You can present the negative result as a paper document or on your phone, as a text or email.

For the pre-departure home test, can you pack a free NHS lateral flow in your suitcase to use before you fly home?

No. You are not allowed to use the free NHS tests to travel back to the UK.

Instead, locate and book a clinic abroad where you can take a test (but remember the result must be in English, French or Spanish). This is the safest bet according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Some companies are offering CE-marked lateral flow tests you can pack in your suitcase. While UK borders will accept these (provided the certified result shows the date that the test sample was collected or received by a test provider and meets the standards outlined above), the DHSC advises caution. It was not sure whether all airline carriers would accept them.

If your passport is in a different name to your Covid test result, will the result be accepted to travel?
vaccine passport

No. The name on your test result must match your travel documents. So if your passport is still in your unmarried name, for example, it won't be accepted. You will need to change your passport before you travel. Do this in plenty of time as it could take up to 10 weeks to receive it.

If your journey to England requires stopovers or changes, where should you take your test?

When a journey to England involves changing flights midway, provided you take the test within 72 hours of the final flight's departure time and you do not leave the airport, it doesn't matter what country you do this in. For example if you fly to England from the US via Spain, you could take the test in the US as long as it's within 72 hours of the final flight's departure. If you leave the airport in Spain though for a stopover, you must take the test in Spain.

Before booking a stopover flight where you need to leave the airport, you should check that the country you're due to layover in is permitting Brits into the country and any entry requirements.

If you leave the airport during a stopover and for any reason and cannot get a test, you will need to speak to your airline to see if they will let you board the final leg of the flight. If this is permitted, you could be fined when landing back in the UK.

At what point should you take the pre-departure test if you are driving back to the UK?

When driving, you should take the pre-departure test within a 72-hour window of arriving in the UK. It does not matter what country this is in, provided it's timely.

What happens if your pre-departure home test is positive?

Don't go to the airport or try to board a ferry or Eurotunnel as you could infect others and you won't be allowed to travel home.

What to do will vary by country. For a good starting point, find foreign travel advice for the specific country you are in on the government website. Locate the 'Coronavirus' tab or the section about healthcare to find advice. This will help you locate a Covid helpline or a private healthcare provider. If you're in a hotel you could phone reception for help - do not leave your hotel room. If you are already en route in the car, you should find the correct number to call on the government website. Find out more about what happens when you test positive abroad.

Remember though that your European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) or Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic) covers state healthcare only. You will be responsible for the cost of any treatment provided by a private doctor or hospital. This is why it's important to find a decent insurance provider when booking a holiday and ensure you'll be covered in this scenario.

What is a Ghic and do I need to pay for it?

If your pre-departure home test is positive, do you have to pay to quarantine in a hotel abroad or will this be paid for?
Hotel room

This varies by country. For example in Greece, the Greek Authorities pay for you to quarantine. However in many countries you will have to cover the cost of this yourself. Even if the hotel is covered, you may have to pay for all other associated costs such as food. Make sure you have insurance to cover this scenario.

What happens if after testing positive and finishing your quarantine period you are still showing as positive?

Evidence of prior infection does not remove the requirement to provide a negative pre-departure test to travel. The government advises online: 'If you have recently recovered from Covid but are no longer infectious, you should use a lateral flow device test. Lateral flow device tests have a lower sensitivity than PCR or LAMP tests, so they are less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection.'

If you continue to test positive you will have to remain in that country until you can provide a negative result. You should take out travel insurance prior to travel that will cover you for additional accommodation and flight expenses caused by testing positive while abroad. See advice on the best Covid travel insurance policies.

Do you need to pre-book PCR tests for day two and/or day eight, or can you book them when you get home?

You must pre-book so that the tests are waiting for you back home. Find out who you should book your day two test with. Before you return to the UK you will need to fill in a pre-departure form which will ask for booking reference numbers for the Covid-19 tests you plan to take once back in the UK.

Need help knowing what to prepare for travelling abroad? See our checklist for travel

If you're flying home to England, where do you book your day two and eight Covid tests?

people on plane wearing masks

Book these through any provider as long as they are UKAS accredited and their tests meet minimum requirements. A good place to start to find a credible provider is by reading our article about which Covid test providers to use and the government website. You could also book them through high street stores such as Boots. Find out the cost of Covid tests for travel.

Find out where to get cheap Covid tests for travel

If you're flying home to Wales, where do you book your day two and eight Covid tests?

Currently, you must book your tests through CTM. The results of these tests are processed by NHS laboratories and are put directly into NHS Wales' systems.

However from 21 September this is changing. From that date you will be able to book with a wider variety of test providers. Find out more the new testing rules on the Wales government website.

If you're flying home to Scotland, where do you book your day two and eight Covid tests?
plane flying in a sunset sky

You are no longer required to book through CTM. You can now choose a private testing provider when booking a test for after you arrive in Scotland. Read more on testing requirements on the Scottish government website.

If you're flying home to Northern Ireland, where do you book your day two and eight Covid tests?

Book through a government-approved provider. Test packages can be booked through the NHS via CTM or choose your own Covid testing provider from this list.

What is the test to release scheme and who can use it?

In England, if you aren't vaccinated and you return from an amber list country, you must self-isolate for 10 days. However, under the Test to Release scheme you can choose to pay for a private Covid-19 test on day five. If the result is negative (and the result of your day two test result was negative or inconclusive) you can end your quarantine.

This scheme is not available in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Do children need a day two or eight test?

child getting covid test

Children under five do not need to take a day two or eight test.

If someone tests positive on the plane on the way home, will everyone on the plane have to self-isolate?

If a person tests positive in a specific compartment or cabin on the plane, then the entire compartment will be contact traced.

Do you need to self isolate while waiting for your day two results?

No, you do not need to self-isolate while waiting for your day two results. If your result comes back positive, you will then need to.