Since the U.S. has not standardized a vaccination certificate for use across states or internationally, Gronvall says, “There is no vaccine passport or testing passport, and the tests themselves have become their own form of passport, even for vaccinated people.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently advise that anyone who has left the country, vaccinated or unvaccinated, test for coronavirus three to five days after they return. Unvaccinated travelers are advised to quarantine until they test negative.
Testing abroad and what to know about rapid tests
While ample free testing is currently available in the United States, the situation varies broadly in other countries. Hotels in tourist-frequented spots like Mexico and the Caribbean, for example, are frequently including free rapid testing in their nightly rates, but getting a PCR test there is likely to incur a high charge, and typically is more complicated since it requires processing at a health lab.
Gronvall and Freedman say for-purchase PCR tests at foreign airports and other private sites (like urgent cares) can be very expensive; somewhere between $120 to $200 per test. This is why most Americans are opting for rapid tests, which cost as little as $40, deliver results in minutes, and include remote-monitoring services that pair you with a health professional who oversees the swabbing and results via a telemedicine video call to verify who has taken the test, a process which typically takes under 30 minutes (and doesn’t alway require an appointment). These services, which are included in the cost of Ellume and BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test swab kits, then create a verified negative result for officials to confirm, typically via your smartphone. If you’re planning on taking a rapid test abroad for return into the U.S., it’s important to make sure you have strong enough Wi-Fi for a video connection so you don’t waste the test. These types of test are in high demand, and as a result often sell out at many providers, which include CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens. (Note that self tests that do not include remote health monitoring are not accepted for official travel purposes, they just give you some peace of mind if you have the sniffles.)
While testing abroad may seem easier since Americans can more easily acquire a rapid test for re-entering the United States, Freedman says there’s an important caveat to consider: False positives. Rapid tests have been known to draw some incorrect results, which is why it’s smart to complete your rapid test early on in the 72-hour window so that a follow-up PCR test can be done if you receive a positive result and suspect it is false. “It gives you time to go out and find a negative PCR that will prove that,” Freedman says.
While some rapid tests are hard to find right now, testing is still in a better place than it was during 2020, and both Freedman and Gronvall say that it’s unlikely it will ever return to the long wait times seen before vaccinations mounted in the U.S., even if cases do continue to rise into the colder months. “It’s easier and better to test now,” Freedman says, “and the testing is really becoming ingrained into the travel experience.”