Somewhere in between drinking that last margarita and heading to the airport, travelers leaving Mexico are required to get a coronavirus test before returning to the United States, regardless of vaccination status.
But what if you’re someone like me who tends to stay in budget accommodations and Airbnbs?
On a recent trip to Mexico, I had to find a coronavirus test on my own. I had heard it would be simple for tourists, so I was confident in the task. While I did find one, I did encounter some hurdles. Here’s some advice for travelers planning to do the same.
What kind of test you’ll need
Anyone 2 years old and up entering the United States, including citizens and residents, must provide proof of a negative test result taken within 24 hours of their flight. (The rule doesn’t apply to people traveling by land or sea.)
Travelers can get a rapid antigen test or a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), which includes PCR tests. But because PCR lab tests generally take a day or two to process, it may not be ready in time for your flight.
A better choice is the rapid antigen test, which I took. While the tests are less sensitive than PCR ones, these tend to be the fastest and most affordable testing option, and they deliver results in as little as 15 minutes.
How to start your search
If you’re not sure where to start your search for a test, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico has a covid-19 page on its website where one can find how to acquire a test, whether results are reliably available, how much one should cost and more.
You can also go to the local tourism office for help finding approved labs. Airlines, such as Aeromexico, also have information on their websites for finding tests around Mexico.
I assumed that I would run into coronavirus testing centers wherever I traveled. At first, that didn’t appear to be the case in the first city I visited, Merída, the capital of Yucatán state. If I had done more research, I would have found that there were plenty of options.
However, Google may not have the most up-to-date information on testing options. In the second stop on my trip, Playa del Carmen, I searched on Google Maps for “coronavirus test” and got just a few results at pharmacies. But after walking around town for a day, I saw there were dozens of locations nearby that Google hadn’t flagged.
If all else fails, head to tourist areas
Coronavirus testing centers for travelers are going to be in places that have the most travelers.
On a hunt for a tiny lunch spot far from the beach in Playa del Carmen, I didn’t notice any coronavirus testing centers among the butcher shops, clothing stores and laundromats. But when I turned down the city’s main tourist street, they suddenly were everywhere. They advertised fast results approved by the United States
Prices were around $25 to $30 for a rapid test, and $90 for a PCR. Most accepted walk-ins, but also took reservations if you want to plan ahead.
I spent the last few days of my trip in the beach town of Puerto Morelos. Googling testing options didn’t pull up many results, so I had a backup plan to drive to a larger city such as Cancún or Playa del Carmen. But luckily I found a testing center a block from where I was staying; it just wasn’t reflected online.
For about $25, the center’s lone employee took my ID (your name and birthday needs to be printed on the test results) and administered a rapid test. When the results were ready 15 minutes later, she gave me a printed copy and emailed me the digital version as a backup.
While I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute to get your test, some airports in Mexico have testing on-site. At Cancún International Airport, for example, they advertise first come, first served antigen tests for about $15 with results in 30 to 60 minutes.
Pack an approved self test
If you’d like to skip the process of finding a test altogether, you can bring a CDC-approved “self test” that you take over a video call with real-time supervision from a telehealth service.
One option is the Detect coronavirus test that uses the same technology as a PCR lab test and delivers results in about an hour. A kit costs $75; for $20 extra, travelers can purchase a video observation session so the test can meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirement.
Last summer, I went with this option for a trip to Europe with the BinaxNOW kit (about $70 for a two pack). The night before my flight home to the United States, I downloaded the required app, followed the instructions and took the test while a telehealth professional walked me through it over a video call.
The testing process took about 25 minutes, plus another 30 minutes to wait for the results (you don’t have to sit around and watch the test.)
Once the results were ready, another telehealth professional came on the line to help interpret the results. We determined it was negative, and soon I received an email confirmation that I could show the airline the next day.
What to do with your results
For my American Airlines flight back from Mexico, I wasn’t allowed to check-in until I uploaded a photo of my coronavirus test result into an app called VeriFLY, which stores your required documents for travel. I sent in my results, had them approved hours later and completed the standard American Airlines check-in process.
Not all airlines use so-called vaccine passports such as VeriFLY. You may be asked to provide a paper or electronic copy of your test results to airline personnel at the airport.
After a six-hour layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the second leg of my journey home from Mexico was canceled with no other options to fly that evening. Should you be one of the many unlucky travelers whose flights into the United States are canceled and rescheduled for the next day, you will need to be retested to meet the CDC requirement. Should you be one of the even unluckier travelers to test positive abroad, you won’t be allowed to fly back until you’ve completely recovered from the illness.