What is a PCR test? Can I travel abroad without one?

Jetting off on a foreign holiday is now possible again under a traffic light system, with countries classified as green, amber or red.

By Stephanie Bateman
Thursday, 20th May 2021, 12:47 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th May 2021, 12:47 pm

But although holidays are no longer prohibited, there are still lots travellers need to do, including pre-departure and post-arrival coronavirus tests taken within a certain timeframe.

The number and type of tests travellers need to get – both before and after travel – depends on the country they’re visiting. Each destination has its own requirements for entry, while the restrictions for those returning to the UK will vary depending on whether the country they’re arriving from is red, amber or green.

Here’s everything you need to know.

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You must take a test before travelling back to England

Do I need a test before I go on holiday?

Whether or not you need a test is entirely dependent on the entry requirements of the country you’re visiting. Most destinations currently require a negative Covid test taken within a certain amount of time before departure or arrival – often 72 hours, though it can be less. And in fact, if this is the case, an airline is unlikely to even let you on the plane unless you present your negative result.

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The type of test needed will also vary. Many countries require it to be a PCR test and some even stipulate it must be administered by a professional, rather than being self-administered using a home testing kit. Other countries, such as Italy, will accept a rapid antigen test.

Do I need a test before returning to the UK?

Yes. No matter what country you’re travelling from, prior to departure for the UK you need to show proof of a negative Covid result. However, most test types are accepted, so you can choose from PCR, rapid antigen or lateral flow. Testing kits can be purchased in advance in the UK, so that travellers take one with them and self-administer it before the return journey.

Do I need a test on arrival to the UK?

Yes, although the number of tests you need will depend on the country or countries you’ve travelled from. If you’ve been to a green list country, you’ll need to take one PCR test within two days of arriving back in the UK. If you’ve been to an amber country, you’ll need to have pre-booked a package of two PCR tests, to be taken on days two and eight upon your return. Returning travellers must quarantine for ten days at home, but can also opt to pay for another test on day five in order to end self-isolation early (should the result be negative, of course).

Those travelling from red countries must have pre-booked a mandatory 11-night quarantine hotel package, which includes two PCR tests.

How much will all these tests cost and where do I get one?

The cost of private testing varies wildly in the UK, but prices are starting to drop. The average cost of a PCR test is £120, but tour operators and airlines are partnering with labs to offer customers cut-price rates – for example, Tui’s cheapest “green list” package currently costs £20.

Prices will depend on what type of test it is, and also whether it’s administered professionally or is an at-home kit.

Travellers should ensure they use a testing facility that’s on the government’s list of providers.

​In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.