In light of the emergence of the new Omicron variant, rules for travel have changed rapidly in recent weeks.
There are strictly limited circumstances under which you can use a free NHS Covid-19 test (whether a lateral flow or a PCR test). For all other reasons — including to travel — you must book and pay for tests yourself via a government listed private provider.
In this article we'll cover:
- Entry to England from abroad
- Travelling abroad from the UK
- Can I use tests provided by my employer?
- When can I use a free NHS Covid-19 test?
Entry Into England From Abroad
All arrivals into England now need to take a pre-arrival test in the 2 days before your service to England departs, and show proof of a negative test including your name, date of birth/age, test result, the date the test was taken, test provider name and confirmation of the lateral flow device used for the test (or that the test was a PCR test).
You are not permitted to take a NHS test abroad with you to use for this pre-arrival test, and must instead use a private provider.
You can choose to find a local private test provider whilst you’re still abroad, however, you may find it easier to purchase your Pre-Arrival test from a private provider in the UK and take it abroad with you. This is a low-hassle option allowing you conduct the test yourself and receive a fast result via a UK-based provider. Normally you upload a photo and copy of your ID to the provider who will interpret the result and send you your certificate (though sometimes self-swabbing is overseen via a video call). Test results are often checked at border control and/or alongside your Passenger Locator Form and any other required documentation (i.e. visas, vaccination status etc).
It’s worth noting that — if you have a very short stay abroad and are returning to the UK within 2 days — you can use the result of a COVID-19 test that you take in the UK before you travel, however, you must use a private test provider for the test (not an NHS test). Make sure you check the rules.
Everyone entering England from abroad must take a PCR test for Covid-19 following their arrival. All arrivals must complete a Passenger Locator Form in the 48 hours before they arrive in England which must include the booking reference numbers for any required post-arrival Covid-19 tests.
Arrival tests must specifically be booked through a government listed private provider able to send you a valid booking reference number for your passenger locator form. This means you can't use non-arrival tests for this purpose, which includes NHS tests.
The tests you need once you arrive into England (assuming you are not arriving from a Red list country) depends on whether you qualify as fully vaccinated under the rules for travel to England.
In summary, if you’re fully vaccinated you now need to take a PCR test on or before the 2nd day after you arrive into England and isolate until you receive a negative result. In order to minimise your isolation period, you may opt to purchase a fast-track PCR test.
If you’re not fully vaccinated, you’ll need to isolate for 10 days and take PCR tests on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 following arrival (you may be able to leave quarantine early via the day 5 Test to Release scheme).
If you’re in England for less than 2 days, you still need to book and pay for a ‘day 2’ COVID-19 test, and quarantine until you receive a negative test result or until you leave England, whichever is sooner. If you are transiting through England (or staying for less than 24 hours) you may be exempt from booking and taking a day 2 test. Find out how to reflect this accurately on your Passenger Locator Form here.
Travelling Abroad from the UK
Most countries require a Fit to Fly (or Fit to Travel) PCR or Antigen test accompanied by a certificate or written statement of a negative result proving that you are not currently infected with Covid-19. NHS tests are not permitted for travel because they are not accompanied by a Fit-to Fly certificate, and you must instead book and pay for your tests via a government listed private provider.
Some countries may also require a QR code to be included on your Fit to Fly certificate, and many providers are able to offer this upon request. Always check the full requirements of both your travel provider and the full government guidance of your destination to ensure the provider you choose can supply the full information required on your Fit to Fly certificate.
Entry requirements for all countries (including which tests are permitted) are different and changing constantly, with many countries tightening their restrictions over the past few weeks. At CTN we present guidance for most popular countries as you work through our comparison tool but you should confirm that your chosen provider meets the criteria for your destination.
I’m regularly tested by my employer as part of a workplace testing programme - can I use these tests for travel?
In some circumstances, the company conducting your asymptomatic workplace testing may be able to ‘upgrade’ your negative test result to include a Fit to Fly certificate. You may be required to cover any additional costs involved in issuing the certificate, but this still may be a more affordable option than purchasing an entirely new test. Remember, though, that you would need to ensure your test is taken within the timeframe specified by your country of destination and/or your airline.
You will also need to ensure that your workplace employer or testing partner is a government listed private provider for travel to ensure your test meets the requirements.
So, when can I use an NHS Covid-19 test?
NHS tests are only provided for free if:
- you have COVID-19 symptoms
- you’ve been advised to take a test by a medical practitioner or a government agency (for example, you may need to get tested if you're due to have surgery/a procedure)
- you have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive.
If you’re asymptomatic (you don’t have symptoms), you can also get free NHS Covid-19 lateral flow tests.
If you need a COVID-19 test for any other reasons you must book and pay for it yourself using a private provider.
Written by Abbie Pullman
Published on 10/12/2021
Abbie is General Manager at Covid Testing Network, overseeing the day-to-day operational running of the business.
The information within this article is accurate at the time of publishing.
Information about testing requirements, entry requirements to the UK and travelling abroad during Covid-19 is CTN’s understanding of the requirements from multiple sources including the UK Government website at the time of publishing - always check full requirements including mandatory documentation and quarantine rules before you travel!
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