Today I’ll explain the basics of COVID-19 tests for travel, after doing 15 tests in the last 8 months myself. It’s not extremely complicated when you take the time to understand. And as mentioned recently, we’re going to have a lot more content on the subject soon.
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Here’s what’s coming soon to create our new ultimate guide to COVID-19 testing for travel (which is in addition to our ultimate guide to pandemic travel for everything else, that is soon-to-be-revamped with videos):
- How Canada’s entry test requirement works
- How to get free COVID-19 tests in the USA
- Introduction to COVID-19 test requirements (this article)
- How to understand every country’s test requirement
- The cheapest tests here in Canada (at $20)
- List of test providers all over Canada
- What happens if you test positive abroad
- How to easily find a COVID-19 test abroad
- How to pay less for a test abroad
- How to go anywhere in the USA without a test
- My 15 experiences with tests for my trips
- FAQs on COVID-19 tests for travel
- Why Canada should eliminate its testing requirement
- Canada’s arrival tests (for the unvaccinated)
But let’s start with an introduction to explain the very basics of tests in general.
The basics of COVID-19 test requirements for travel
Some countries require COVID-19 tests to enter… but obviously not all: 61 countries are open to Canadians without any testing, as explained in our ultimate guide to every country’s entry rules.
If you want a simpler trip, just choose one of those and you’ll only have Canada’s pre-departure test requirement to understand (and that one is really very very simple).
But as a traveler, it’s always good to understand the basics anyway. And it’s always good to have even more destination options.
And it makes no sense to blindly want to avoid paying for an extra test, just like it makes no sense to blindly want to avoid paying for a credit card with a fee and miss out on a welcome bonus worth hundreds of dollars to “save” $120 for example🤣.
(We invite you to attend our free travel rewards webinar to learn more about that amazing hotel deal and about the importance of doing the entire math and not just looking at ONE element of the equation!)
The 3 main aspects to understand about COVID-19 tests
Here are the 3 main aspects to understand about COVID-19 testing for travel:
- The timing of COVID-19 tests
- The type of COVID-19 tests
- The rules about COVID-19 tests
I’ll do an overview of each one so that you know the essentials, but this part you may already know.
The timing of COVID-19 tests
The timing is simple. There are 2 options in terms of COVID-19 testing for travel:
- Pre-departure testing
- Arrival testing
Pre-departure testing is by far the most common. This means that you have to the test before going to a country; the test is required to board the plane to that country.
But some countries require an arrival test as well (overall pretty rare).
The type of COVID-19 tests
The type is the most important. There are 2 main types of COVID-19 tests for travel:
- Molecular tests (PCR, NAAT, RT-LAMP, etc.)
- Antigen tests (often called rapid tests)
Some countries accept the faster and more affordable antigenic tests, while others do not (like Canada).
Of course, no country in the world will accept self-administered home tests… you always need official proof of the result in the form of a report. Self-administered tests supervised virtually in telehealth mode come with reports so they are often accepted, for example in Canada and the USA, but you have to check each country’s rules as always.
The rules about COVID-19 tests
The rules are all the important details to understand about COVID-19 testing for travel:
- The time allowed for the test (72 hours, 1 full calendar day, etc.)
- When the deadline is calculated (before the flight, before arrival, etc.)
- The format of proof required (paper or digital)
- The language required (English or other)
- The administrative steps (upload or not)
- Requirement of having a QR code on the report (or not)
- Requirement of using a specific laboratory (or not)
Obviously, not all of these elements are always present and the vast majority of the time it is really quite simple.
But like everything else related to travel rules, you need to read and check anyway. ALWAYS!
The key is really to understand a country’s testing requirement itself
The 3 most important things about test requirements
We’ll go into more detail on how to actually read and understand the requirements for each country in the next post, but it will be easier if you already at least understand the basics.
Here are the 3 most important things about test requirements (but also all travel rules really):
- You just need to read
- You have to understand that every country is different
- You have to accept that rules change constantly
The 3 seem pretty self-explanatory, but just in case…
You just need to read
There is ONE official database that lists all the entry rules for each country. This is the one and only official source. Everything is always written there. Read that and that’s it.
We give you the link to that source for each country in our ultimate guide to every country’s entry rules, with our simplified version of the rules to help make it easier to read.
We do that because it’s not always easy to read on the official source directly, since:
- It’s written by government bureaucrats in complex jargon
- It’s for all world travelers and not just for Canadians
Sometimes there are literally 28 paragraphs of rules for just one country. But the principle itself is simple because everything is in the same place for every country.
You have to understand that every country is different
ALL rules vary for ALL countries.
It is very simple to understand and that is the most important thing about all travel rules, not just tests: Every country makes ITS OWN RULES.
Just because a rule exists in Canada does not mean it exists elsewhere, or that it is exactly the same. Even the most insignificant details of a testing requirement can vary.
For example, almost everyone thinks the USA gives you 24 hours to do the test required (by plane only), but that’s false. They give you the full calendar day before the day of your flight, regardless of the time of day, and with no hour-based limit at all.
Completely different. Even if at first glance “24 hours” and “1 day” seem similar!
That’s why you have to read, because in a case where the smallest detail that you didn’t read is more restrictive (instead of more permissive like in that example), you will simply be denied entry.
You will be the only one to blame, unfortunately. “But I thought the rule…” will be of no use. Don’t assume anything. Every country’s rules are different.
Note that only one airline in the entire world has a testing requirement: Etihad, based in Abu Dhabi.
All other airlines just apply the countries’ entry requirements, it’s really that simple. I can’t tell you how often people seem to think that airlines have specific test requirements, but they don’t!
(Same for vaccine requirements: ZERO airlines currently require vaccination… they only apply the countries’ rules, it’s simple.)
Also, Canada is one of the only countries in the world with a test requirement to board a plane (only from Canadian airports) but it’s a vaccination requirement, not a test requirement (there are a few exemptions for unvaccinated travelers, and some of them allow using a test instead).
You have to accept that rules change constantly
Just because a country has a test requirement today doesn’t mean it will have one tomorrow. And vice versa.
The rules are updated regularly. Canada doesn’t change its rules often at all, but many countries do.
And for those of you who ask us if a test is going to be required to enter whatever country in March 2022… unfortunately, no one knows what the rules are going to be during the holidays and that’s a week away. So no one can predict that far in advance.
The 7 factors that can determine test requirements
Among the countries that have test requirements, some modulate the requirements based on certain variables.
Here are the 7 main factors they use:
- If you are vaccinated
- If you have proof of a past infection
- If you are only transiting
- If you have been in specific countries
- If you are entering by air or land
- If you are a child
- If you are traveling for essential reasons
To finish off this long intro, let’s look at each one briefly.
If you are vaccinated
Being vaccinated does not mean anything in and of itself.
It seems to be hard for some to understand, but each country has its own rules so sometimes:
- Even vaccinated travelers need to be tested to enter (like in Canada)
- Even non-vaccinated travelers don’t need to be tested (like in Mexico)
Each country obviously has its own definition of who is considered fully vaccinated too.
The vaccine brands accepted, the number of days required after the last dose, and even the number of doses required can vary (we are starting to see some countries requiring booster shots or putting expiration dates on doses — but this is still very rare, thankfully).
The type of proof of vaccination accepted also varies (some countries in Europe just exempt those with the EU vaccine certificates from their testing requirement, even though they have exactly the same definition of “fully vaccinated” on all counts).
If you have proof of a past infection
Having proof of a past infection sometimes exempts you from the test requirement (like in Canada).
The definition of a “past infection” can obviously vary in each country. In Canada, it’s 14 to 180 days before entry (10 to 180 days starting on January 15th, 2022), but in the USA it’s up to 90 days (with no minimum).
The type of proof required varies too. In Canada the positive test alone works, but in the USA you also need a letter from a healthcare provider saying you have recovered (that’s why there’s no minimum).
Every country is different, that principle is very simple.
If you are only transiting
Transiting through a country, i.e. having a stopover there, can exempt you from the testing requirements… or not. Each country decides.
Sometimes it also depends on the type of stopover, either on the same ticket and on the same airline or at least in the same airport. In other countries, such as the United States, transits do not exist, so transit rules are simply the same as entry rules.
Unfortunately, the rules for transits are less clear than the rules for entry in the only official database that exists. The website of the country’s major national airlines, of the airport in question, or of the local government are the resources to check out.
If you have been to specific countries
Depending on the countries you have been in, the testing requirements may vary.
This is very frequent. Usually, what they look at is where you have been in the last 14 days, but that timeline can vary of course. That, like everything else about entry rules, is clearly written on the official database.
For example, when the UK reopened, no test was required to enter if you arrived from Canada. But if you arrived from Portugal, a test was required. And in that case, even a one-hour stopover in Portugal counted (and in other countries stopovers won’t count).
Even Canada has specific testing requirements for 12 countries of origin, namely India, Morocco, and 10 countries in Africa.
If you are entering by air or land
Depending on the transportation mode, the testing requirements may be different.
The best example is obviously our neighbor to the south, which does not have a test requirement by land (but does have one by air).
Unfortunately, unlike the entry rules by air, there is no official database for entry rules by land worldwide.
Honestly, it’s a complete nightmare to try to find those land border entry rules… it makes understanding the rules for entry by air seem like a peaceful walk in nature by comparison.
If you are a child
For children, sometimes testing requirements are eliminated completely. Sometimes not at all.
And if so, the age that determines whether or not a testing requirement applies obviously varies in each country. Sometimes, the testing rules for children depend on the accompanying travelers’ vaccination status too.
You can read our ultimate guide of travel rules for children.
If you are traveling for essential reasons
Essential travelers are often exempt from testing requirements. The definition of “essential” will vary by country.
At Flytrippers we focus on the rules for leisure travel, but all of our resources and links will help you check which rules apply if you are traveling for another reason (it just won’t be as turnkey and you’ll have to read even more).
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COVID-19 tests for travel may seem complex, but it’s really not that complicated if you know how to read (and if you do it). By understanding the basics, you’ll be able to travel anywhere you want to without any problems! Check back soon for the next part.
What would you like to know about COVID-19 tests? Tell us in the comments below.
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Featured image: COVID-19 test for travelers (photo credit: Annie Spratt)
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