You are currently viewing What happens if you test positive while traveling?

With record numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19 here and in some places around the world, it’s a good time to answer this frequently asked question. Because it seems that a lot of people are worried about getting a positive test result while traveling.

By the way, in a separate article, I went over the implications of a recent infection for those who haven’t left yet but want to travel soon. We’ll have a lot more pandemic travel tips for Canadian travelers; sign up for our free newsletter to get all of our content first.

But let’s start with what happens if you test positive while you’re traveling.

Both of us 2 Flytrippers co-founders have been on nearly 100 flights and visited over a dozen countries on 3 continents during the pandemic. We want to experience as much of the pandemic travel reality as possible to help you better, but we haven’t experienced testing positive abroad ourselves.

But we’ve found the official rules for you. Many people are unfortunately confused about the rules, as with all other pandemic travel rules in fact. We’ll help you make sense of it.

 

Highlights: The 2 separate rules

Let me remind you of the basics: Canada has a pre-departure testing requirement for everyone who wants to enter.

So as mentioned in our guide to deciding if you should travel now (and in our free checklist for pandemic travel), one of the risks to consider in your decision is obviously the risk of testing positive while traveling.

Basically, there are 2 distinct rules to follow if you test positive while traveling:

  • The isolation rules of the country you are in
  • The entry rules of Canada (and transit countries, if any)

These are 2 completely separate things of course.

The first one depends on each country. The second one is the same, no matter your destination. And you have to comply with both of course.

Here’s an infographic that summarizes the whole thing before getting into the details.

See the full-size infographic

 

Isolation rules of the country you are in

First of all, the isolation rules are the rules instituted by the public health agency of the country where you are… if there are any rules.

What are these rules? It depends!

This is the most important thing to understand: Like all pandemic travel rules, every country is different and has different rules.

You obviously have to follow all the rules when you go somewhere.

So of course, what happens after a positive test in another country is entirely up to that country. They decide. For a reason I really can’t explain, some people seem to think that Canada’s isolation rules will apply outside of Canada. No, the rules of the country you are in will apply.

 

Examples of isolation rules

To give an example, the United States’ rule is that if you test positive, you have to self-isolate wherever you want for only 5 days. Other countries say you don’t even have to self-isolate at all if you are vaccinated and you test positive.

At the other extreme, other countries may force you to self-isolate for 14 days in a specific facility of their choice and you have no say in the matter. Other countries are somewhere in between, some countries might require additional tests (which may or may not be at your expense)…

It varies, just as all other rules always vary.

If you remember just one thing to help you travel during the pandemic… it’s that every country is different. A concept that is so simple, yet so misunderstood.

If this is something you are concerned about, look into it BEFORE you choose a destination of course! The time to look into it is not AFTER you’ve chosen one, that way you won’t end up like those who complain in the media that their destination’s isolation rules are not to their liking…

Believe it or not, once you’ve chosen a destination, it’s slightly too late… I don’t mean to be mean, but taking responsibility is literally THE thing that will make all your future trips better and save you thousands of dollars.

So I really want you to understand how important this is and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the pandemic (it’s just even more important than usual).

 

Learning about isolation rules (if you’re worried about that)

So I’ll say it one more time: If you don’t want any surprises when you travel, good preparation and good planning are what you need, to see what the rules are…

But only if you’re worried about that.

Every traveler is different. For example, I don’t care about the isolation rules. I have my computer, I can work from anywhere. I’ve visited 12 countries during the pandemic and never even checked that once.

Why? I have statistically much more chances of testing positive here in Canada than somewhere else… and if I test positive in Canada I will have to self-isolate too. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, if I’m infected, I will self-isolate. So why would I stop myself from traveling for that, personally for me it wouldn’t make sense.

(Especially since traveling is infinitely more pleasant than staying here, especially right now — which is why we’re in Central America right now.)

Of course, I have insurance that covers my quarantine costs abroad so it wouldn’t cost me anything for lodging or meals (the 4 travel insurers here covered that last time I checked, make sure it’s still the case when you get your quote while waiting for our detailed article on that coming soon).

So for me, staying stuck somewhere else is actually even better than having to come back to the only place in North America that had a curfew and the one with the most extremist approach in the 22nd month of the pandemic.

But for you, if you’re stressed about self-isolation rules… check them.

How do you check? That’s the more complex part. Because unlike each country’s entry rules, which are all in one official centralized database… you have to look a little harder.

Here are your best options for finding this:

  • The country’s tourism office website
  • The country’s public health site
  • Their government’s general website for COVID-19

Once you have complied with their isolation rules, you must comply with the rules to enter Canada.

 

Entry rules for Canada (and transit countries)

So secondly, there are Canada’s entry rules. This applies ONLY after you have completed your self-isolation according to local rules.

In order to board a flight to Canada, you have 2 choices:

  • Have a NEGATIVE test result done within 72 hours
  • Have a POSITIVE test result within 11 to 180 days

But that positive test has EXACTLY all the same strict requirements as the negative test. This is important.

Let me explain the whole thing.

 

The basics of Canada’s entry rules

I’ll start with one thing: There are surprisingly many people who wrote to us who really thought they could just get on the plane with their positive test (or even without having received their result).

No. The whole point of requiring a test is so that we don’t have positive people on the plane, so at first, I thought that was a strange thought.

But then I remembered that when Canada had a mandatory hotel quarantine to await the results of the arrival tests, travelers who were positive and negative were all allowed to go home immediately, the result didn’t make any difference. And unvaccinated Canadians are still tested when they arrive even if, whatever the result, they have to quarantine for 14 days and take another test on Day 8, the result doesn’t make any difference.

So in short, I somewhat understand that some people can be confused given the absurdity of many travel rules since the beginning.

But yes, the result of this test is important. In a world where no rules are harmonized, the only thing that is true everywhere in the world is that you cannot board a plane while positive.

(The only way is with a Medjet plan worth a few dollars; detailed post about that to come.)

So if your test is positive, the first thing to do is change your flight. Most airlines are flexible about this, but again, the ticket change policy is something you should have already checked if you’ve followed our checklist for pandemic travel.

 

The 2 ways to enter after a positive test

So first, Canada has no minimum limit after testing positive, contrary to the common myth.

If you test positive and by chance, the next day you test negative… you are allowed to enter Canada (if the test is acceptable; see below). It’s not clear whether specific airlines have their own rules though, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

As long as you don’t have any symptoms of course (you can never board with symptoms, even if you have a negative test and you’ve never tested positive in your life), and I repeat: only if you’ve complied with the local isolation rules I just explained above.

Otherwise, if you don’t want to pay for another test or if you stay positive for a long time as it’s apparently often the case, as soon as the 11th day after your positive test, you can simply leave without having to test again.

So it’s a MAXIMUM of 11 days that you will be stuck elsewhere according to Canadian rules. But there is no MINIMUM: You can be stuck there for less than 11 days if you test negative faster… unless the country you are in requires you to stay in isolation longer or you have symptoms.

 

Examples of disrupted travel

To give the same example in the United States, to be clear (since what seems to be most common since the beginning of the pandemic is that people have a hard time understanding that each rule is separate): Let’s say you go to Miami and you get a positive test.

You have to self-isolate for 5 days according to the US CDC rules. Then, if you are symptom-free you are free again, even if you are not allowed to board the plane for another 5 days. You can at least move around and visit a bit more.

You don’t have to self-isolate even if you can’t board the plane, these are 2 completely separate rules! All rules are always separate and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get that.

 

Transit rules

However, the rules I just explained are the rules to enter Canada. So that’s if you have a DIRECT flight to Canada.

If you have a transit, you must of course also comply with the rules of the transit country (if there are rules). What are they? Every country is different! It depends! So check the entry rules for every country.

But if for example you have to go through the United States when you come back from somewhere else, they ask for either a negative test… or a positive test within 90 days AND a letter from a health professional confirming that you have recovered.

Quite a bit more complicated than just the test… although the US does accept rapid antigen tests, so maybe the chances of you still testing positive are lower than with a molecular test like a PCR.

 

How the 11-day period is calculated

Be aware of how the number of days is calculated by Canada: If you receive a positive test on the 10th, you can only board a plane or enter Canada on the 21st.

Regardless of the time of the test and the time of the flight, Health Canada media relations confirmed to Flytrippers that the full days are what matters for this exemption to Canada’s pre-departure testing requirement.

 

Rules for entry by land

By the way, the rules are now the same by land as well. Entering by land if you are positive is AGAINST the rules (but they’ll let you in, unlike by air).

The same conditions as what I just explained apply for entry by land: You need either a negative test or you need to wait 11 days.

Yes, even if you are alone in your car and you go straight home by yourself without any stops to self-isolate, it is not allowed if you are positive.

(But if you are positive on the right side of the imaginary lines, then you can even go to work in a hospital while being positive, at least in some provinces! That’s science, it cannot be questioned in 2022.)

To be more precise, as I said, they will let you in (because Canada can never stop a Canadian from entering by land) but you could be fined up to $5,000 and possibly sent to a designated federal quarantine facility (commonly called a “gulag”) if your quarantine plan is not considered suitable by the customs agent.

This was confirmed to Flytrippers officially by the media relations at Health Canada and it is also found directly on the government website (and on their official social media accounts), unfortunately.

Official rule (image credit: Government of Canada)

 

Many people do not interpret this rule correctly, but I repeat: Health Canada media relations reconfirmed explicitly and clearly that a positive test is NOT valid if it is dated less than 11 days and that you are subject to enforcement.

Of course, it does not seem like the fine is given out very often at all in this case (maybe never even), based on all the testimonials from travelers… but the fine is certainly “possible” according to the rules. That much is clear.

You can read this clarification article we did about entering by land with a positive test for more details.

 

You need an ACCEPTABLE test

Finally, note that for the positive test you can use, there are exactly the same information requirements that have to be on the lab report as for the negative test:

  • Your name and date of birth
  • The name AND address of the laboratory/clinic/institution that performed the test
  • The date of the test
  • The type of test
  • The test result

All tests worldwide that are for travelers include this information, so don’t worry about it. The positive test that you will have done initially to return to Canada will work.

But be careful if it’s a test done by a public health organization though… with those, the required information often is not included.

That is precisely what will cause problems for many Canadians who have tested positive here in Canada. Read our detailed post about the exemption to Canada’s pre-departure test requirement to get all the information and tips.

 

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Summary

If you test positive for COVID-19 while traveling, the rules…. depend on the destination (like all the rules in the history of mankind which are always different in each country because each country is independent). What is certain is that in addition to these rules, you must either have a negative test or wait 11 days to board a plane to Canada.

What would you like to know about testing positive abroad? Tell us in the comments below.

 

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Featured image: Traveler with mask (photo credit: Simon Hajducki)

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Andrew D'Amours

Andrew is the co-founder of Flytrippers. He is passionate about traveling the world but also, as a former management consultant, about the travel industry itself. He shares his experiences to help you save money on travel. As a very cost-conscious traveler, he loves finding deals and getting free travel thanks to travel rewards points... to help him visit every country in the world (current count: 64/193 Countries, 47/50 US States & 9/10 Canadian Provinces).

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. mort

    Your answer above does not apply to Swoop

  2. Jackie

    Hi Thanks for all the info. I just have one questions about your summary: You still have to wait 10 days to board a flight even if you test negative within those 10 days ?

    Summary
    If you test positive for COVID-19 while traveling, the rules…. depend on the destination (like all the rules in the history of mankind which are always different in each country because each country is independent). What is certain is that in addition to these rules, you must either have a negative test or wait 10 full days to board a plane to Canada.

    1. Andrew D'Amours

      No you must either have a negative test (no matter how long it’s been since your positive test) or wait 10 full days. Those are the 2 separate options.

  3. Nico

    So here is hypothetical scenario: Many big airports provide PCR testing a few hours before flight. Or your PCR test results arrive after 20 hours. You get tested and test come pozitive. You will need to cancel flight back to Canada. You call airline to change flight but phone lines are busy for hours. You can’t reach their customer service on time to reschedule flight. Reservation link from your email provide onlythe Refund option. They will mark your flight as No Show. In tht case you will lose the ticket money. My experience with Lufthansa was similar. Maybe you can write one article about this?

    1. Andrew D'Amours

      Hi, ideally going to the airport to fix the situation directly with the employees there, if that is allowed based on the local isolation rules. If not, reach out to the airline on social media where they answer relatively quickly, at least so they tell you the best option if the phone wait is too long (maybe they’ll say to use the online refund option for now, maybe they’ll help themselves, etc.)

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