COVID-19: Testing for international travel purposes

Information on testing for travel, including testing following recent COVID-19 infection COVID-19: Testing for international travel purposes

The following guidance is based on rules for arrivals in England, and different rules may apply for those arriving in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

The NHS Test and Trace service should not be used for those needing a test before or after international travel, and 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 for international travel purposes or for the test and release scheme on return to the UK is only available as a private service.

COVID-19 tests in the UK

A number of tests for COVID are available; these can determine if:

  1. COVID-19 infection is present at the time the test was performed. These include:
    • 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, or saliva samples. Test results may provide 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 The CE mark has been replaced by the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed).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 prior to entry, or require travellers to take one or more tests on arrival. 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 (or countries) they are travelling 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 rules for children may differ depending on their age and travel destination requirements [1].

COVID-19 testing for return from international travel

The rules for international travel to England are subject to change. Travellers can sign up for email alerts to be notified of updates to the rules.

All travellers must:

Please note that different rules may apply depending on your vaccination status and country of vaccination. Different testing and quarantine rules also apply for children (see links below).

Red list countries or territories

The red list of countries and territories continues to be reviewed. Countries and territories may be added and travel restrictions may be imposed at any time to protect UK public health.

Guidance for those who have been in a red list country or territory in the 10 days before arriving in England.

  • If you live in England, you should not travel to countries or territories on the red list.
  • Entry to the UK from a red list country is only allowed if you are a British or Irish National or have residence rights in the UK.

See also testing and quarantine rules for children from red list countries.

Rest of the world (non-red list) countries or territories

Transit stops

Travellers must follow the rules for the highest risk country or territory visited in the previous 10 days, including transit stops. Guidance on transiting through a red list country on your way to England should be followed.

COVID-19 testing for travel following recent infection

Some countries relax their entry rules once a specified time has passed since the traveller tested positive for COVID-19, and/or can demonstrate that they have immunity following infection, and/or have proof of recovery. Travellers must check the rules for their destination and for the UK on return.

In England, history of previous infection does not currently change the entry requirements. Travellers must still book and pay for the relevant tests, as required based on their destination. COVID-19 testing for international travel purposes is only available as a private service.

Following natural infection, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test can remain positive for up to three months, but the average is around 17 days [2,3]. Where a choice of tests is allowed under a country's COVID-19 testing rules relating to travel, those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 but are no longer infectious, could consider using an antigen test e.g. a lateral flow device (LFD) test. 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 [4]. The LFD test must meet the minimum performance standards for England; other countries may also specify minimum standards.

First Published :   10 Dec 2020
Last Updated :   06 Jan 2022

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