COVID-19: Testing for international travel purposes

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

Different rules may apply for those arriving in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

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 leaving 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
    • Nucleic acid amplification tests e.g. 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 e.g. Lateral Flow Device (LFD) test
  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. The CE mark has been replaced by the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed).

Limitations of COVID-19 tests

No test is 100% reliable, even those with valid CE or UKCA 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 in the country they are travelling to on arrival in the country). Check the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) foreign travel advice; (see the summary, health, and entry requirements sections). The UK-based embassy of the destination country can also be contacted if further details are required.

When arranging a test, travellers should check the requirements of the country to be travelled to and consider the time it will take to process the test and get the 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

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

Test requirements for people arriving from abroad depend on where they have been overseas in the last 10 days. Countries have been rated as red, amber or green [1]. Countries and territories can be moved between lists if conditions change. Travellers can sign up for email alerts to be notified of updates to the lists.

Note: Some may have natural immunity e.g. following COVID-19 infection, shown by a positive PCR test result for COVID-19, which may be considered by some countries. However, England does not currently exempt travellers from testing and other entry requirements if they have proof of recent COVID-19 infection [2]. See advice below for those with previous infection.

Arriving in England from abroad

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

All travellers must, before arrival in England:

  • Book and pay for COVID-19 tests, and where required, a managed quarantine package.
  • Complete a passenger locator form
  • Have a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test in the 3 days before the service on which they will arrive in England departs (children aged 10 and under do not have to take this test).
  • If you are returning to the UK within 3 days, you can use the result of a COVID-19 test that you take in the UK before you travel. You must use a private test provider for the test and not an NHS test.
  • All arrivals from Spain and all its islands are advised to use a PCR test as their pre-departure test wherever possible.

Some people are exempt from some or all COVID-19 travel and entry requirements because of their job or for medical and compassionate reasons.

Additionally, if returning to England from a country or territory which appears on the green, amber or red list:

Green list

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

Arrivals from green list countries:

  • A COVID-19 test must be taken on day two or before following arrival in England from green list countries; tests must be booked in advance of arrival in England. Quarantine is not required unless the test is positive.

  • These rules apply even if the traveller has been fully UK vaccinated [1].

See section below ‘COVID testing if you have recovered from COVID infection’.

Amber list

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

Arrivals from amber list countries:

  • If not fully UK vaccinated
    • COVID-19 tests must be taken on day 2 or before and on or after day 8 following arrival in England.
    • quarantine at home or in the place they are staying for 10 days.
    • quarantine for the whole of your stay if you are staying in England for less than 10 days; tests on day 2 or before and on day 8 must be booked. Take the tests only if remaining in England on those dates.
    • the ‘test to release scheme’ may be an option for travellers who are not fully UK vaccinated and arriving from amber list countries. Travellers who wish to use take this option must opt in on the passenger locator form, book and pay for an additional test no earlier than the 5th day after arrival in England. If the result is negative, the quarantine period can end. The tests on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 will still be required.

See section below ‘COVID testing if you have recovered from COVID infection’.

Red list

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

Arrivals from red list countries:

  • British and Irish nationals or those with the right to live in the UK may enter, but must quarantine for 10 full days in a managed quarantine hotel.

  • The managed quarantine package must be booked within a 14 day period before arrival in England and will include the hotel stay, quarantine transport and your travel test package for COVID-19 tests on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 of quarantine [4]. Details of the fee for the quarantine package can be found on GOV.UK.

  • These rules apply even if the traveller has been fully UK vaccinated [1].

Different testing and quarantine rules may apply for children, check GOV.UK for details.

See section below ‘COVID testing if you have recovered from COVID infection’.

Transit stops

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

Travellers must follow the rules for the highest risk country or territory visited in the previous 10 days, including transit stops. Guidance on transit stop through amber or red countries should be followed.

Information is available on Providers of day 2 and day 8 coronavirus testing for international arrivals.

Further details on booking tests and hotel quarantine requirements are available on GOV.UK.

Different rules apply for those arriving in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

COVID testing if you have recently had COVID infection and are returning to the UK

Some countries relax their entry rules if you have immunity following COVID infection. In England, history of previous infection does not currently change the entry requirements. You must still book and pay for the relevant tests, as required based on your destination.

Following natural infection, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test can remain positive for up to three months, but the average is around 17 days [5,6].

Pre-departure test (before you return to the UK)

The rules for international travel to England will change from 4am Monday 4th October from the red, amber, green traffic light system to a single red list of countries, with simplified travel measures for arrivals from the rest of the world. The rules for travel from countries not on the red list will depend on the vaccination status of the person travelling [1].

If you arrive in England before 4 October, you must follow the current rules.

If you have recently recovered from COVID but are no longer infectious, you could consider using an antigen test e.g. a lateral flow device (LFD) test as your pre-departure test [6]. LFD tests have a lower sensitivity than the nucleic acid tests e.g. PCR, so they are less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection and after completing required self-isolation. The LFD test must meet the minimum performance standards.

However, the day 2 and day 8 (if required) PCR tests on entry to the UK must be used as these tests are also suitable for identification of variants [2].

First Published :   10 Dec 2020
Last Updated :   22 Sep 2021

COVID-19: Vaccines

Information on COVID-19 vaccines in the UK and vaccination programmes worldwide Read more

Checking drug interactions

Information and resources for checking potential drug interactions Read more

COVID-19: Resources

Current coronavirus advice from NaTHNaC, PHE and FCDO, with links to international information sources Read more

Standards in travel medicine

Some essential documents relating to standards in travel medicine and immunisation Read more
Back to Top