Getting a PCR test for travel: Where to get tested for COVID-19 and what happens if you test positive

Tests for COVID-19 are part of the new normal of travel, but they're no reason to stay home. A little planning with a topping of fortitude and your holiday will roll along like a Swiss train.

Where do I get a PCR test in Australia?

Just Google "Australia PCR test for travellers" and you'll find several specialist clinics. If your destination country requires a PCR test as a condition of entry, you need to take the test within 48 or 72 hours before your flight departs, either your airline or your destination country's website should tell you which. In Australia the test costs about $150. The result will come in an email which you need to print out, in colour. You cannot use the result obtained from a government funded clinic since the proof, which is sent as a message to your phone, does not have the information required to satisfy entry to your destination country. Sydney and Melbourne international airport terminals have COVID-19 test facilities which offer PCR testing with a one-hour result.

Qantas has a useful page dedicated to pre-departure testing:

What about the PCR test I need coming back to Australia?

You need proof of a negative PCR test taken within the previous 72 hours before your flight back to Australia. If you have connecting flights on the way home, that 72-hour figure applies to the departure time of your first flight.

Prices for PCR tests vary wildly. In the UK you can expect to pay anything from £40-120, in the USA between $US150-350, in Thailand THB2900-3500. In Singapore a home visit PCR test costs $S188 from ATA Medical while an express pre-departure test with a three-hour turnaround is $S328. Take a family of four on a US holiday and PCR tests will add somewhere north of $1400 to your holiday cost.

Finding a PCR test facility is not too difficult in the case of most developed countries. Your airline should have a list, but Google will also come to your aid. The IATA Travel Pass locator is another handy resource:

VFS Global also has a website where you can book COVID-19 tests in most of the countries you're likely to want to visit:

Make sure the test will be available in time for your flight. PCR testers have sprung up to cash in on this hydrant of new wealth and some are shonky, failing to deliver results in time and causing travellers to miss flights. Check reviews on Google.

What if I'm staying in a remote location?

Fiji is running hot as an aspirational holiday destination. According to stats from Flight Centre, in mid-October Fiji was the destination that attracted most interest, responsible for half of all travel enquiries. Starting December 1, Fiji is offering quarantine-free travel to fully vaccinated tourists from travel partner countries. Australia is one of those countries and there's a lot to like about a Fiji holiday but there's a potential worry. According to the country's official travel website, all the PCR test facilities are located in Nandi and Suva. The Fijian government also says the test turnaround time is up to two days. If you're holidaying on an island resort, that could mean tacking a couple of extra days onto your Fiji holiday just to get your PCR test done and back before returning to Australia. Some resorts are arranging for testing to be done in-house and samples transferred to test clinics on Viti Levu but many more are not saying. The official website quotes the cost of RT-PCR at about $225.

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The resorts scattered across the coral atolls of the Maldives are more proactive, which is not too surprising since they've been operating since mid-2020. Most of the upmarket resorts have partnered with the three labs in Male that conduct PCR tests, allowing guests to enjoy the sweet luxuries that these resorts offer without having to spend time faffing about arranging their own PCR test.

What if I test positive overseas?

Even though most patients recover from COVID-19 after 10 days, you can continue to return a positive PCR test for up to 90 days. That's a problem since you need a negative PCR test before you can board a flight back to Australia, and to many other countries as well. There is a workaround, and what you need is a doctor's certificate proving that 14 days have passed since your first positive PCR test, that you're free of symptoms and no longer infectious. Read more here.

All incoming travellers need to complete an Australia Travel Declaration. That requires an account with the Department of Home Affairs, and you might as well set one up before you leave our shores. You need to complete this declaration at least 72 hours before your flight to Australia, in other words before you take your PCR test: See https://atd.homeaffairs.gov.au/

Will PCR testing become the new normal?

PCR testing is the most accurate method for detecting infections, despite the relatively high incidence of false positive results. In response to protests from the travel industry, at least one country is moving away from PCR tests. Since October 24, the UK has replaced the day two PCR test required for all fully vaccinated incoming travellers from non red-list countries with a lateral flow test. This is a type of antigen test, it's quick and easy to administer and almost as accurate as PCR tests.

However the UK's model for dealing with COVID-19 is not one most countries would choose to follow. While the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, expect PCR testing for travellers to be with us for some time.

See also: PCR: What you need to know about compulsory COVID test for travellers

See also: US, yes; Japan, no: Where you can (and can't) travel to now borders are open

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