Explorer's Journal: Our positive experience with at-home Covid tests
This is an anecdotal write-up of our team’s on-the-ground experience doing at-home Covid tests in December ’21 for re-entry to the USA. If you’re curious about entry requirements for our various destinations, check out “Countries open for North American travelers.” Note: travel regulations and entry requirements tend to change quickly, so for the most up-to-date information, please contact your Destination Expert.
In early December 2021 the USA started requiring that all international travelers provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test, taken within 24 hours prior to boarding the flight to the USA. Everyone age 02 and over must provide either a negative antigen or PCR test, regardless of their vaccination status.
A few members of our team traveled to the remote Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama in mid-December, meaning we needed to arrange reliable testing to facilitate a smooth return to the USA.
We pre-ordered at-home Covid tests (using a brand suggested by United, the airline we flew for this trip) and they were shipped to our home addresses prior to travel. We then brought these unopened tests with us in our luggage.
It’s surprisingly easy! Here is our recommended timeline:
At least 2 weeks prior to travel:
- Order your tests online, to be shipped to your home address.
- Important: We suggest ordering a minimum of 02 tests per traveler, to have an extra test available for pre-departure, or to have a second test handy in the (extremely) rare case you’d have a false positive test.
1-2 days prior to travel:
- Familiarize yourself with the instructions on the test boxes. If the box says “do not open,” make sure to leave the seals in-place.
- Download the test’s app to your smartphone. In our case, we downloaded the “Navica” app for our Abbott-brand BinaxNOW tests.
- Familiarize yourself with the app, and set up an account when prompted. There will likely be some back-and-forth with confirmation emails during the account set-up.
- Important: Pack your tests in your hand luggage. Make sure to leave enough room in your carry-ons for your unopened tests, and pack them in a spot where the tests won’t get damaged. For size reference, our test boxes were approximately 1” x 5” x 8” each. Packing your tests in checked luggage is risky, especially considering your suitcase could be lost or damaged by the airlines.
- Have a blast! Travel responsibly and make sure to follow all local covid regulations.
Last day before returning to the USA:
- Scope out a quiet place with good wi-fi. Your hotel room will probably be best, but connectivity may be stronger in someplace like your hotel’s business center.
- Allow for approximately 45 minutes to complete the entire testing process. The actual test call only took us about 20 minutes (it was advertised as 15, but things always take a little longer than advertised, don’t they?), and we spent about 10 minutes on either end of that call to get set up and then wait for the official results via email.
- Take the test. Follow all the instructions on the box. In our case, this involved visiting the website listed on the exterior of the box, clicking on “start testing,” and getting paired with a live medical representative who walked us through each remaining step via a video call. Note: We found out the hard way that some smartphone internet browsers work better than others for testing – for example, one team member had to switch from Chrome to Safari before they could start the process.
- Remember your ID! To certify the test results, you’ll be asked to hold up your original photo ID to the camera while on your video call.
Day of travel
- Have your certified results at-hand when you get to the airport. Because of the USA’s new 24-hour entry requirements, you’ll need to complete the check-in process in-person, meaning an airline representative will manually check all necessary documentation.
- At-home testing means your results will be virtual. Your airline should accept virtual results shown on your phone, no questions asked. Your test results will be emailed to you (they may also be accessible via the app), so to avoid any potential connectivity issues we recommend taking a screenshot of your results when you first receive them. Then, you can simply show your test results from your phone’s photo reel without needing to connect to the airport wi-fi.
What is the actual test like?
Inside the sealed test box, there was a sealed package containing the testing card, a sealed test swab, and a tiny, sealed bottle of liquid. Via video call, we were walked through opening the bottle and squeezing 6 drops into the test card. The next step was using the swab to rub the inside of one nostril for five seconds, then do the second nostril (we counted to five out-loud so the video call representative could hear us). The last step was to insert the testing swab into the test card, give it three good rotations to saturate it with the liquid, and wait for 15 minutes for the results to come through.
The video call kept running with the testing card in sight during a 15-minute timer, though we were able to stand up and move out of view of the camera if we wanted. At this point, we took the opportunity to soak up 15 final minutes of Panama sun, surf, and palm trees, before returning to our phones to register our results.
Next, we showed our negative test results to the camera, and they registered the results via the tiny QR code on our testing cards (technology is so magical, sometimes). The results are kind of like pregnancy tests, where one solid line meant a negative result, and two solid lines would have meant a positive result.
After a few minutes, our negative results were sent to us at the email address we provided when we first created our accounts. We were all set!
The last word
It’s important to note that each at-home testing kit will have different steps. Make sure your test kit is approved by your specific airline, or authorized by the FDA, so your results will be accepted for entry to the USA.
Do we recommend at-home testing? In a nutshell … yes! It’s especially convenient if you’ll be traveling in remote areas where fewer testing options are available. We were able to confidently get tested for a relatively low cost (approximately USD $40 per test kit). The most important take-aways of our testing process were having a strong wi-fi connection for the video call, and leaving enough time so as not to rush the process.
Hit two birds with one stone
You may want to do a practice at-home Covid test 1-2 days before embarking on your international trip. This will have a dual purpose: First, you’ll know exactly what steps to follow when it’s time to take your test to return to the USA, and second, you’ll be able to travel all the more confidently knowing you had a negative test result.
Ready to embark on your next expedition? Contact a Destination Expert today to plan the details, then order your at-home testing kit and hit the road. Happy travels!