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Rapid antigen (lateral flow) COVID tests for travellers
Antigen lateral flow COVID-19 tests are a travel requirement to many countries. Here's everything you need to know.
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Australia's international borders are set to slowly open up from November 2021. This means you will finally be able to book an overseas holiday, provided you are double vaccinated and meet all other travel requirements.
This includes taking a COVID-19 test to prove you aren't infected. Being fully vaccinated does not guarantee you don't have the virus, so additional testing is still necessary.
Some countries and airlines are now accepting antigen tests as acceptable proof that you're fit to travel. These lateral flow tests are cheaper and faster than standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests but are also less accurate. Let's get you up to speed on everything you need to know.
What is an antigen (lateral flow) test?
An antigen test works a little differently from PCR tests, which are the type you get at government-run testing clinics. Antigen tests look for proteins in the virus to detect its presence, while a PCR looks for the RNA material that tells the virus to produce these proteins.
On a practical level, an antigen test is a lot easier, quicker and cheaper to do. You can even do it yourself at home as it doesn't necessarily require a lab technician's input.
Some countries and airlines will accept an antigen (lateral flow) test for travel, but be sure to check the specific requirements and the airline policy carefully before you settle into a decision.
In Australia, travellers will be required to take a PCR test and return a negative result before boarding their return flight.
How do antigen tests for travel work?
Depending on the provider, you may be required to get an in-house test or do it from home.
If you're going into a clinic, you'll either be supervised while taking your own swab or have a professional take it for you. It can be taken from the tonsils, nostrils or both. Once the swab is taken, the results can be as quick as 15 minutes. Once proven COVID-negative, you'll get a certificate to travel with. Show this at the airport and you're good to go.
If it's an at-home antigen test, you'll also take the swab from the tonsils, nostrils or both, whichever the instructions specify. Depending on the delivery service and level of demand, it can take up to 3 working days to arrive.
Some providers may require a supervised test from home, which is usually done via Zoom or other video chat services. You'll be instructed on how to develop your sample and once it's proven negative, you'll be issued with a certificate proving that you're fit to fly.
How much do lateral flow tests for travel cost?
Prices vary depending on the provider, but you shouldn't be paying much more than the $50 mark for a rapid antigen lateral flow test taken at home.
For example, Australian supermarket chain Woolworths will be selling 2-pack HealthyLife kits for $30, with a 5-pack kit selling for $50.
Where can I get an antigen test for travel?
There are multiple providers ready to sell rapid antigen home testing kits from 1 November. We have a list of providers on our COVID home testing hub. You will be able to buy kits from major supermarket chains, pharmacies or directly from the provider.
When buying online, make sure that the product has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). This is a legal requirement for any kit sold in Australia. So long as you're making sure that the provider's service is matching your budget, requirements, turnaround time and the airline and destination country's rules, you can't go too far wrong.
Keep an eye on the Trustpilot reviews for any unknown providers and don't be afraid to speak to their customer service if you're unsure about anything. Always check the refunds policy too. Government guidelines are continuously changing, so it's worth making sure you can get your money back if you need to.
Pros and cons of antigen travel tests
- Less intrusive than a PCR test
- Instructions are easy to follow
- Tests can be self-administered at home with no need to wait for lab analysis to get results
- Not accepted by every airline or country
- Delivery time can be vague, hindering plans
- Less accurate than a PCR test
- Rapid turnaround tests can be more expensive
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