COVID-19: Testing for international travel purposes

Information on COVID-19 testing before or following travel COVID-19: Testing for international travel purposes

The NHS Test and Trace service is not for those needing a test before or after international travel. A negative NHS test cannot be used to end the self-isolation period early (a fine may be imposed if an NHS test result is used this way).

COVID-19 testing before you leave the UK for international travel or (if used), for the test and release scheme on return to the UK is only available as a private service with private providers e.g. some private GP services, travel clinics or other private testing services.

Private providers of COVID-19 testing self-declare that they meet the minimum standards for private sector-provided testing and can be listed as a private sector COVID-19 testing provider.

COVID-19 tests in the UK

Tests are available to determine if:

  1. COVID-19 infection is present at the time the test was performed
    • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test: this detects genetic material of the virus
    • Antigen test: this detects material (antigen) of the virus usually a surface protein
  2. COVID-19 antibody is present from a blood test suggesting past infection, but not necessarily immunity to further exposure to COVID-19 infection.

Many different tests are in use or being evaluated. These include samples taken with swabs from the back of the throat and nasal passages and some tests involve saliva providing results within minutes or require processing in a laboratory accredited by the United Kingdom Accredited Service.

A CE mark on a COVID-19 test kit shows that it is fit for the purpose and meets legal requirements relating to safety. After the 1 January 2021, the CE mark is replaced by the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed).

Limitations of COVID-19 tests

No test is 100% reliable, even those with valid CE marks. Results are only valid at the time they are taken. More details about this are available from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

COVID-19 testing before travel from the UK

  • Some countries require proof of recent COVID-19 testing for entry (or require travellers to take one or more tests on arrival in the country). Check the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) foreign travel advice; (see the summary, health and entry requirements sections) and contact the UK-based embassy of the country you are travelling to if you need more information.

  • When arranging a test, you should check the requirements of the country you are travelling to and consider the time it will take to process your test and get your result. A charge will be made for testing and any medical certificate confirming a negative COVID-19 test.

  • The type of test that is usually required is a swab PCR test (a home test kit may be supplied and sent to an accredited laboratory for processing).

COVID-19 testing for return from international travel

As of 18 January, 2021, travel corridors are suspended and all travellers (including UK nationals, but excluding children, some medical reasons and some work related exemptions), returning to England, Scotland or Wales from abroad (excluding some countries) must:

  • have proof of a negative COVID-19 test, taken up to 3 days before departure to the UK, before boarding return transport.
  • find a test provider to do the test who can meet the required test standards.
  • completed a passenger locator form.
  • self-isolate for 10 days [you do not need to self-isolate if you have returned from Ireland but all other restrictions and requirements continue to apply].

Check the rules that apply in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as these may differ and are subject to change.


  • may reduce the self-isolation period through the Test to Release scheme (if available); Covid-19 tests under this scheme should be booked from the list of private providers before return to the UK. Details of the test should be given on your passenger locator form. There is also the option to opt into this scheme following return to the UK.

Travellers who, in the last 10 days, have been in or travelled through any country that is subject to a travel ban:

  • Must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding return transport.
  • must complete a passenger locator form.
  • must self-isolate on return to the UK, along with members of their household.
  • Cannot use the Test to Release scheme.

In addition, there may be different guidance on testing in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

First Published :   10 Dec 2020
Last Updated :   19 Jan 2021

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