From thepointsguy to CNN, everyone is touting at-home ‘travel-approved’ COVID-19 self test kits as the perfect solution for an imperfect problem; meeting the latest CDC-required travel restrictions for entering the United States. But are they, really?
The problem with using at-home COVID-19 self testing for travel
Look, finding COVID-19 testing can be messy and complicated.
After visiting over 35 countries in 2021, I have had to deal with travel restrictions like the plague (pun intended). But every time I’ve tried to use an at-home test kit to meet COVID-19 travel restrictions, I hit a snag.
As a result, I’ve almost always resorted to getting an antigen test right at the airport. And much to my surprise, it’s often even more convenient – and often with results in 15 minutes. No fumbling around with test strips, dripping chemicals, and an online proctor from some distant country. Plus, normal rapid antigen testing is often even cheaper than the at-home COVID-19 test kits, especially when you factor in shipping and tax.
In countries like France and Germany, I had no issues finding Antigen tests on the cheap. Even on my 2-month Central America trip earlier this year, antigen (rapid) tests were easy to find and readily available.
But if you decide to go ahead with buying at-home COVID-19 test kits for your next international trip, here are the issues you should be aware of.
1) There’s a good chance you won’t receive your international COVID-19 self test kit on time
Every single time I’ve attempted or actually ordered a travel-approved international COVID-19 test kit, the shipment has been delayed. Every. Single. Time.
Last time I ordered a kit (which was this week), eMed allowed me to purchase and pay for the kit, get “approved” by one of their in-house doctors, only to tell me there was an “unforeseen” delay with no known estimate on when I would receive my test kits the next day.
It’s been three days and I’m still waiting on an estimate for when my test kits will actually arrive. By the way, I paid for overnight shipping. I haven’t heard anything since the e-mail announcing the delay.
So if you’re buying a COVID-19 test kit for your next international trip, be prepared to face massive delays before receiving it.
2) The travel self test kits have expiration dates
Another threat is the fact that, like other kind of pharmaceutical products, COVID-19 test have an expiration date.
This is because the solution used to produce the results decays over time.
And since the test kits are produced in batches, compounded by the shipping delays I mentioned earlier, you may receive a test kit that you don’t have enough time to use.
3) You may struggle to get your COVID-19 results on time to meet the new restrictions
During busier times, you may have trouble finding an available agent to guide you through the video conferencing process. This obviously depends on the throughput of the provide and the current demand.
Because of the popularity of these at-home testing kits, it’s likely that demand will be very high – perhaps outmatching capacity.
Prepare to be very patient and have lots of time before taking your test.
4) You could get a false positive COVID-19 result
Some of these tests could produce higher incidences of false positives. On Oct. 1, Ellume voluntarily recalled more than 2 million tests, citing “higher-than-acceptable false-positive test results”.
The FDA is currently observing results from these test kits for continued false positives.
5) You need a solid internet connection to take a verify your COVID-19 test – which isn’t a guarantee internationally
We’ve all been there. We arrive at the hotel or AirBnB, log onto the WiFi, and realize something horrific – the connection is so slow, it’s worthless.
Or worse, there’s no WiFi at all.
And if you’re like me, hoping to use your free international roaming such as T-Mobile’s included global data roaming, expect to be disappointed. Unfortunately, the speed won’t be sufficient to take the test – unless you opt for an expensive high speed package.
Since the US now requires test results no earlier than the day before departure, this may leave your rushing to the nearest cafe or restaurant, praying they have decent internet, then taking your test in public in front of a bunch of curious faces.
6) The apps used for COVID-19 self test kits, such as NAVICA, are plagued by bugs
Unfortunately, not only are some of the apps used for COVID-19 test kits difficult to use, they’re also full of bugs that could totally render your test useless.
For example, some people report the test taking 2.5 hours per person, far longer than it would take to just show up somewhere and take a rapid test.
Others report password issues that plague only the app – not the website, even with the same passwords.
But the worst app review you can read is from a user who initially “had a negative result”. When he reached the gate, “the results hadn’t shown up yet”… the next day. He then called customer service and was told “it would take 4 hours to fix”. That’s not something you want to happen when you show up at the airport.
7) It’s super easy to pick up the wrong kind of COVID-19 self test kit
There are very similar test kits sold at pharmacies that are not approved for travel.
Though the test kits made by eMed are completely identical apart from a small difference in names, one is approved for travel and the other one will just serve as a paperweight.
Quiz: Pick the correct one:
- Abbott BinaxNOW™ COVID-19 Ag Card Self Test
- Abbott’s BinaxNOW™ COVID-19 Ag At-Home Test Kit
If you said BinaxNOW “Self Test”, you are wrong. That one is not approved for travel.
The correct COVID-19 test kit for travel is Abbott’s “At-Home” test, which is not sold at your local pharmacy.
To make it worse, many retailers name the non travel-approved package the “Self Test at home”. As if it wasn’t confusing enough.
Make sure the details clearly show that the test kit you’re purchasing is approved for travel.
8) Your COVID-19 self test kit could be damaged, leading to an unreliable or inadequate result
Have you ever ordered something online that arrived damaged? Perhaps it sat out in the rain?
Though the chances are low, these test kits are susceptible to damage due to excessive heat (or sunlight), water infiltration, or being crushed.
This might void your results, or possible create a false negative.
9) The tests aren’t super easy to use and you may accidentally waste one
When I opened my first COVID-19 self test kit, I was shocked to find how complicated it was to use
And if the test kit isn’t the problem, difficulties with the app or the website might cause issues.
It’s important to remember that for Abbott tests, you must compete your registration in the US before leaving for your international trip.
10) The boxes take up some room in your carryon
If you’re an efficient packer like me, this may not be a problem. But when your carryon is filled to the brim, adding a box or two isn’t at the top of your list.
The boxes aren’t huge, but they’re likely bigger than you expect. This is because the testing swap is quite long and there is a decent amount of protection built around the the result card.
The dimensions of the Abbott At-Home Travel-Approved test kit are 9.125” L x 0.938” D x 5.063” H, quite thin and stackable but still enough to make you think twice if your suitcase is stuffed to the brim.
The other solution to getting a Covid-19 test before flying to the United States: airport testing
As you can see, though these approved at-home test kits are a great idea, they’re definitely not a perfect solution.
Luckily, there is a remedy to this problem. And it’s finding a rapid COVID-19 testing center at your destination country. Most major hubs around the world have a COVID-19 testing center right at the airport, making meeting travel restrictions about as easy as it gets.
And if you do decide to go for the self test kits, you now have something in your back pocket – just in case.