No sign of US ending testing rules for international travel

Over the last month, many countries have made international travel during the pandemic easier and more convenient by easing COVID-19 testing requirements, particularly for vaccinated travelers. As of now, despite some calls to loosen the rules, US travelers returning from abroad must still present a negative test.

TPG reported that the US Virgin Islands became the latest territory to announce vaccinated travelers would no longer have to present a negative test upon arrival, and countries like the United Kingdom dropped its testing requirement last month.

Related: Country-by-country guide to coronavirus reopening

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Still, according to the CDC’s guidance last updated in December, the US requires all incoming air travelers over the age of 2 to submit a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure from a foreign country in order to enter the US

The good news is, with COVID-19 cases a fraction of what they were earlier this year, it may be a lot easier to find an at-home test – whether it’s one you hope to submit to the government for re-entry or one for your own peace of mind while abroad.

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At-home tests eligible for submission

As TPG reported in December, the US government’s international travel guidance does allow at-home tests, which of course would not have been possible much earlier in the pandemic before a number of companies made them widely available.

This provision in the guidance allows for international travelers to buy an approved at-home test before leaving the country, and use it while abroad before boarding a flight back to the US

The key in the federal government’s guidance is that tests must be proctored. With at-home tests, this often means a virtual visit with a testing official who will guide you through the process.

BinaxNow at-home COVID-19 test being proctored. (Clint Henderson / The Points Guy)

The CDC accepts widely-used tests from Ellume, Qured, and Abbot’s BinaxNow home test, which has been used extensively throughout the country. It’s important to note that buying a test at a store over-the-counter (such as the the BinaxNow self test) and taking it on your own, is not acceptable to use for re-entry into the US

The CDC requires that tests are supervised by a live attendant via a video call. In the case of the BinaxNow at-home test, you can purchase the test through the site eMed. Once purchased, the company will ship it to you prior to your trip, and then you can take it with live video guidance. More on how that works here.

Related: Getting a COVID-19 test from the comfort of your home

Self tests for peace of mind

There’s another reason travelers heading abroad during a global pandemic might want to purchase an at-home test before leaving: peace of mind.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had minor symptoms like a headache or fatigue prior to a big event or trip during the pandemic and worried it might be COVID-19. (In my case, it never was.) Between airports, flights and tourist destinations, an extra test or two in the luggage is a good idea.

However, a couple months ago that was easier said than done.

In December and January, as omicron surged, TPG reported on how difficult it was to find a self test. Pharmacies struggled to keep them on shelves as those exposed and with symptoms got tested.

Things have changed significantly though. The US saw more than 1.3 million new COVID-19 cases on January 10, but on Friday, March 11, the CDC reported just over 38,000 new cases, a 97% drop. Combine that with manufacturers like Abbott ramping up production in late 2021 to meet demand, and there’s no doubt it’s easier to find a test.

I drove to two major local pharmacies and found a large supply of self tests where they were hard to find just a couple of months ago.

This pharmacy in North Carolina had plenty of tests available. (Photo by Sean Cudahy / The Points Guy)

In a statement to TPG, a CVS spokesperson said the company’s stores “have the ability to meet our customers’ needs with at-home test kits both in store and at,” adding that the company has “simplified the digital process” so customers can order and pick up a test kit with no up-front, out-of-pocket cost or the need to submit a claim to insurance.

Walgreens said it “worked diligently with our suppliers to ensure we have enough supply to meet customer demand at nearly all locations.”

Looking ahead

Even as a number of other countries and territories take steps to ease testing requirements for international travelers, there are no signs that the US plans to follow suit. That means an extra level of planning for international travelers remains.

The good news is that there are more options than ever for procuring a test for both government submission and your own peace of mind while abroad.

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