International leisure travel may currently be illegal, but it’s not too much longer until foreign holidays might be possible, with the government saying restrictions in England could be lifted from 17 May.
When recreational travel is allowed, which countries we can visit will largely depend on individual destinations’ rules.
But even if tourists are allowed in, in many cases a negative PCR test taken within a certain timeframe prior to travel will be required.
Different nations accept different types of test – and getting the wrong one could mean you’re barred entry.
So how can you ensure you have the right one? Here’s our guide to getting the correct test for travel.
Should I get a PCR test or another kind of test to go abroad?
There are various different kinds of Covid tests. There are two broad categories of test to see if a person has the virus: PCR and antigen. Within these two, there are a number of test types. Under the PCR umbrella are swab tests, saliva tests, 90-minute PCR tests and LAMP tests. Within the antigen bracket is lateral flow testing and 2- second tests. There are also separate antibody tests that are designed to check whether a person has previously been infected with the virus.
What kind of test you need to travel abroad will be determined by the country you’re entering. In most cases entry will require a PCR test, but check the Foreign Office advice for the country you’re planning to visit and read the entry requirements to find out exactly what travellers need to present.
Are PCR swab tests and PCR saliva tests the same thing?
No – and it’s important not to confuse the two. Although some countries simply request an ambiguous “PCR test”, others are very specific in requiring a nasal swab test.
Because of this, some ‘Fit to Fly’ Covid-19 tests are not valid for major holiday destinations, an investigation by Which? uncovered. The consumer champion found that one of the four test providers recommended on the British Airways website, Halo Verify, provides a PCR saliva test rather than a swab test.
Looking at 10 destinations’ requirements, Which? found that three stipulated tests must be carried out using a swab. Portugal, Italy and Greece all clearly state that only a swab test is permitted; Australia says that PCR saliva tests are accepted, but only if supervised by a medical professional.
It’s easy to be stung by the rules if you don’t read the fine print.
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In December, The Independent’s own travel editor, Cathy Adams, booked hotel chain Sofitel’s “Test and Rest” package, which includes an overnight stay at Heathrow airport and a PCR test the night before, with results delivered straight to travellers’ phones in time for their flight the next day.
However, the package also uses Halo Verify, which is a self-administered saliva test – whereas Dubai, her destination, required a swab test.
When choosing a test for travel, the most important thing is to first check the country’s entry requirements through the Foreign Office website. If it stipulates a certain kind of PCR test – for example, nasal swab – ensure you are buying or booking the correct test type.
If the wording is ambiguous, it’s probably worth stumping up slightly more money for a swab, rather than a saliva, test; as these are the most widely accepted.
What kind of test do I need to enter the UK?
Under current rules, travellers must take a coronavirus test before entering the UK. It must be taken in the three days before the service on which they will arrive in England departs. (For example, if you travel directly to England on Friday, you must take the test on the Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.)
Those who arrive in England without proof of a negative test could be fined £500.
The type of test permitted by the UK is fairly broad. It stipulates that the test must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. This could include a nucleic acid test, including a PCR test; derivative technologies, including LAMP tests; or an antigen test, such as a lateral flow device test.
The test result must be in either English, French or Spanish, and children under 11 need not take a test.
British Airways customers can buy Qured antigen test kits for a discounted price of £33. The test kits can be taken abroad and used anywhere in the world and, following a video consultation with a health advisor, results are available in 20 minutes.
Designed to be portable, customers can take the kits with them abroad, in preparation for their return journey to the UK.
How do I find an accredited provider?
All private coronavirus testing services have to by law apply for UKAS accreditation; once a lab can demonstrate it’s applied for the relevant ISO standard and UKAS is confident it meets the minimum requirements, it can be added to the Department for Health and Social Care’s central list of providers.
To be sure it’s accredited therefore, it’s best to go through a provider on this list.
Travel editor Cathy Adams can report a positive experience with London-based clinics DocTap.
From there, it’s essential you book the right kind of test that will be accepted by the country you’re going to. Aside from the swab vs saliva PCR test slip-up, there are other differentiations: Dubai, for example, stipulates tests are taken at a registered facility rather than being done at home and sent off in the post. Other countries say the test must be carried out by a medical professional.
Many airlines, airports and holiday companies have now partnered with testing companies to offer customers reduced rates. These should be bona fide – just read the small print about what kind of test it is before you book and check whether that matches your destination’s requirements.
Other than that, do your research. Ask friends and family if they’ve had a particularly good (or bad) experience with a provider; and look the company up online and see if it has a slew of negative reviews before buying (some have consistently let travellers down by not delivering test results within the permitted time frame, for example).