This story has been updated
Depending on which brand of free test you receive, you may be able to use it on your next international trip, after all.
That’s what I did on my recent return from Costa Rica, and the whole arrangement felt like uncovering a travel hack that saved me time, stress and a little money. Here is how it works.
Which tests work for U.S. travel restrictions
To meet the CDC’s requirements for entering the country, travelers can book an in-person test at a pharmacy, hire a professional to administer a test at their hotel or bring an approved self-test on their trip to take with a telehealth proctor over a video call.
Self-tests that can be bought over the counter and taken without a proctor are not accepted for travel to the United States, but manufacturers including Floflex, Detect and On/Go now sell a supplemental video telehealth services to make the tests CDC-compliant.
The free tests I got from the government were from iHealth. For $24.99, I could purchase their virtual meeting service with a telehealth proctor to verify my test and issue a digital report with the results. (In the past, I have spent about $70 for a two-pack of the popular BinaxNOW tests that includes video proctoring.)
In May, iHealth, said it does not have the capacity for new bookings and has not restocked its telehealth proctor service. Use one of the other listed options and book your telehealth video call ahead of your trip to ensure an appointment.
The government contracted several manufacturers to supply free tests, and you can’t choose the brand of test you will receive. That means you need to wait and see what you get before finding out if yours sells an online proctor service.
How to order free coronavirus tests from the government
Americans can order free rapid antigen tests through COVIDTests.gov. Each U.S. household — which includes people living abroad in diplomatic and military outposts — is limited to eight tests (up from the original limit of four), regardless of how many people live there. Tests can take a few weeks to arrive, so you will want to order them well before a trip.
Anyone who can’t order online or needs help with the process can call 1-800-232-0233 (TTY: 1-888-720-7489) from 8 a.m. to midnight Eastern time for help in more than 150 languages.
If you’ve already used up your free test from the government, another way to subsidize your travel testing costs is through insurance. Since Jan. 15, private insurers are required to cover the cost of eight over-the-counter at-home tests per individual per month.
According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, “insurance companies are required to reimburse you at a rate of up to $12 per individual test.” Once you’ve purchased a test, go online and buy the manufacturer’s telehealth supplement to make it approved for international. (Make sure to read the fine print for your insurance company’s reimbursement details before purchasing your test.)
What you need to pack for the test
Every testing company will have their own rules, but for my iHealth test, I wasn’t allowed to use a tablet or smartphone to conduct the video call. So along with the tests, I had to pack my laptop. For some vacationers, that may be an annoying ask, but it’s smart to bring one anyway in case you catch the coronavirus on a trip and need to work remotely.
If you didn’t want to bring a computer, you could see if your hotel or Airbnb has one that meets iHealth’s requirements: access to the Google Chrome browser, a working microphone and a front-facing camera.
For peace of mind, you may want to pack a backup test in case something goes wrong with your first one (i.e., you get a false positive, you lose it or you damage it).
What it’s like to take it
I booked my iHealth video appointment a couple of days in advance to get one that suited my travel schedule. The process was simple and straightforward, taking just a couple of minutes. The company sent out confirmation emails for the purchase and appointment reminders, including one within an hour of the test with a link to the video call.
My Airbnb had reliable WiFi that worked through the entire testing process: greeting the proctor (who wasn’t visible to me, I could just hear their voice), opening the package, preparing and taking my test, then waiting 15 minutes for the results to be confirmed by another proctor. Within seconds of going over my results, the proctor emailed me a report and a QR code to show the airline (or in my case, upload to the VeriFly app, per American Airlines requirements).
Only one of our travel group of four experienced a small glitch during his testing process. While it took most of us no time to get connected with a proctor to verify our results, he was stuck for about a half-hour on an iHealth page saying they were connecting him to a proctor. We finally refreshed the page, and he was connected with someone immediately.