Easy Way to Do 1-Day Testing For Returning to US

Update: From the US State Department’s website: The CDC order from December 2, 2021, requiring persons aged two and above to show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the United States, is rescinded, effective June 12, 2022, at 12:01AM ET.  This means that starting at 12:01AM ET on June 12, 2022, air passengers will not need to get tested and show a negative COVID-19 test result or show documentation of recovery from COVID-19 prior to boarding a flight to the United States regardless of vaccination status or citizenship

On December 6, the US tightened the COVID testing window for inbound international travelers from 72 hours prior to departure to one day. Going from one of the widest testing windows to the narrowest leaves you with just a couple of options. You can hit the airport test center and hope to get a negative result e-mailed to you before boarding, or pack a CDC-approved self-test in your carry-on and use it the night before you leave. I took the low-risk route and brought along Abbott’s BinaxNOW rapid antigen test with eMed. I needed to do a bit of upfront planning, but it made our return home a lot easier.

Pre-Trip Planning

You can’t just hit your local Walgreens or CVS the night before leaving and grab a kit off the shelf. This might meet the first requirement of the CDC’s order — an FDA-approved test — but not the second — a telehealth provider that watches you take the test and then issues the lab result you’ll need to show the gate agent to get on the plane.

Doing your own COVID testing takes up a lot of valuable luggage real estate

There are a couple of tests that meet the CDC’s requirements, but the Abbott BinaxNOW test is the easiest one to buy. You can buy a 6-pack directly from eMed, or a 2- or 3-pack from Optum, but make sure you buy the BinaxNOW tests with eMed telehealth services.

When figuring out how many to order, there’s a few things to keep in mind. First, how many spares to take with you in case a test doesn’t work or gives you an ambiguous result? Second, the more you buy, the cheaper each test is. The 2-pack from Optum prices out at $30/test while buying the 6-pack from eMed drops it to $25/test. But third, remember that the tests only have a 12-month shelf life, so don’t overbuy.

Irene and I had two international trips coming up, so I ordered a 6-pack from eMed a month before our first trip. The tests arrived a week later. We took four tests with us on each trip but never had to use the spares. One thing to keep in mind — because you’re not supposed to open the test until you’re on-line with the teleproctor, those four boxes can take up a lot of valuable luggage space.

I also downloaded and set up the companion Navica app and created a profile on the eMed website before we left. You don’t have to do this before traveling, but it’ll make the actual testing session faster.

Take the Test The Day Before Flying to the US

The CDC’s new test window is 1 day before departure, not 24 hours. So, if your flight leaves 1pm on Friday, you could board with a negative test taken any time the day before; a test taken Thursday morning would be fine. You’ll need to find a clear space on a table or desk and a solid WiFi signal, and then give yourself 30 minutes for the test — 5 minutes to log into eMed website and start the telehealth session, a couple of minutes to do the test, 15 minutes for the results to develop, and a final couple of minutes back on with the teleproctor to read the results.

BinaxNOW COVID testing session

We weren’t traveling with computers, but we successfully ran our telehealth sessions on a selection of handheld devices — a Samsung Galaxy S2 Android tablet, an iPad Mini, and two vintages of iPhones (Xr and 13 Pro).

You log into the eMed website, run through four questions that prompt you to wash your hands and have your ID ready, and then get into queue for a telehealth session. Last summer, I heard complaints of 2+ hour queues, but we didn’t wait over 3 minutes for any of our sessions.

When the session starts, the proctor can see you, but you only hear the proctor. They’ll want to check your photo ID, watch you open the test box, and then scan the QR code on the test card. On our phones and tablets, this process awkwardly flipped the web session between the front and back cameras a couple of times. Then, back to the front camera, the proctor watches you swab both nostrils and then insert the swab into the test card. I don’t know how you’d do this one-handed; you’ll want some way to use your phone or tablet hands-free. With the testing complete, the proctor starts a 15-minute on-screen timer and drops off the call.

After the timer finishes, the web page asks if you’re ready to rejoin the session. Pressing “Yes”, you enter shorter queue for another proctor session (we never waited more than 90 seconds). They confirm it’s the same test card by having you scan QR code again and then confirm the test results with you, asking you how many lines you see. On one of these review sessions, the proctor’s audio was all fuzzed up. She asked me if I was comfortable proceeding using the chat function and we finished the session without a problem. eMed then e-mails you a PDF of the test results as well as notifying you in the Navica app. We didn’t wait more than 10 minutes for our results to show up.

Using The Test Results

This is why you’ve gone through that telehealth drill — to get a lab result that meets CDC requirements so your airline will let you fly home. On our flight home from Italy, we pulled up the test result PDF twice on our iPhones, when checking in for Lufthansa flight from Catania, Sicily to Munich and again for a United Airlines agent at the final gate-side security check before boarding our MUC-ORD flight.

A month later, we were flying American Airlines home from London. American uses the Verifly app to pull together all the required COVID travel documents. Verifly didn’t recognize the QR code on the Navica test pass, so I uploaded a screenshot of my test results for manual verification. After about 30 minutes, the “in-process” status icon turned green and we were good to go. When we checked in for our flight at Heathrow, all we had to do was show the agent the green “All good” screens on the Verifly app; no need to show the actual test results.

Bottom Line

A little pre-departure planning will let you enjoy a more relaxed final day of vacation.