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PCR COVID-19 tests: What travellers need to know

If you're looking to travel abroad or travel back to Canada, you're likely going to need a PCR test to prove that you're COVID-free.

The information on this page is current as of Jan 6, 2022. Visit the Government of Canada website for the latest updates on COVID testing requirements, vaccinations, travel restrictions and more.

A PCR COVID test has become a bit of a buzzword lately, and for good reason. One of the first things people these days have to consider when making any travel plans will be, “What are Canada’s PCR test requirements?”

In order to slow and prevent the spread of coronavirus, necessary measures have been put in place to allow travel to resume. With a PCR test, you can now roam freely – well, more freely than before, and have the confidence to do so.

What is a PCR test?

The first thing a lot of people wonder about PCR tests is what does PCR stand for? PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction. In Canada, a COVID PCR test can often be referred to as a “molecular test” as well.

If you’re interested in the science behind PCR tests, here’s a basic summary. COVID PCR tests work at the molecular level by analysing the microorganisms in your upper respiratory in search of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists use the PCR test to amplify small amounts of DNA to detect if the virus is present at the time of the test.

It’s an accurate and reliable way to diagnose COVID-19.

How do PCR tests work?

Whether you’re doing the PCR test yourself at home or getting it done by a professional healthcare provider, it typically follows the same pattern. After ensuring all hands and equipment are suitably sanitised, a swab will be taken either from the tonsils, nostrils or both. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s the most accurate way to detect whether or not the virus is in your system.

The swab is then sent away for analysis to a laboratory where they will isolate the RNA (a single-stranded molecule that’s taken from DNA) and mix it with other ingredients to detect the presence of coronavirus.

You’ll receive a notification whether or not you have the virus. If you test negative, you’ll be fit to fly. If you have a positive response, you’ll have to self-isolate and unfortunately reschedule your plans at a later date.

How much do PCR tests cost in Canada?

COVID-19 PCR tests can vary in price but typically cost anywhere from $100 to around $200. But you may find some PCR tests at around $300 up to nearly $400.

It’s worth shopping around to find the best deal on your airline and destination country’s specific requirements for PCR travel tests. You can also check out the reviews for retailers offering PCR tests to make sure they’re legit.

Where can I get a PCR test?

Private pathology clinics provide COVID-19 PCR testing and result certificates for travel clearance. We recommend doing your research before you commit to one. Combining location, availability, affordability, timeliness and trust should land you with the best deal. And if something feels off, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

When do I need to get the test?

Your test must be taken no more than 72 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time from Canada. You will need to show the airline your negative result prior to check-in.

Can I get a free PCR test?

Only those showing symptoms of COVID-19, who have been told by an approved health professional to take a PCR test or those in close contact with a positive case may be able to qualify for a free PCR COVID test. Also keep in mind that most Canadian insurance companies are not currently covering PCR tests required solely for the purposes of travel.

Do I need proof of a PCR test to receive my vaccine passport?

No. You do not need to undertake a PCR test to receive your COVID-19 proof of vaccination passport. The PCR test may only be required when it’s time to actually travel.

You can only receive Canada’s COVID-19 proof of vaccination passport once you are fully vaccinated, which will then allow you to travel within Canada and give you access to non-essential services. As of November 30th, 2021, the government of Canada has begun requiring proof of vaccination for travel within Canada, and will no longer accept valid COVID-19 molecular tests, like PCR tests, as an alternative to being vaccinated (excluding those eligible for limited exemptions).

If you’re planning on international travel, keep in mind that the Canadian proof of vaccination passport does not guarantee that you can enter other countries without needing to take a COVID PCR test. Make sure to check the entry regulations of any country you’re planning to travel to as there may be additional testing requirements for entry.

Pros and cons of PCR tests

  • Accurate
  • Gives peace of mind
  • Can be started at home
  • Instructions are easy to follow
  • Can be expensive
  • Slightly unpleasant to swab
  • A necessary evil for travel
  • Sometimes delayed turnaround

Looking for a Rapid Antigen Test instead? Compare COVID home testing kits in Canada

⚠️ COVID-19 testing kits ⚠️

We're checking availability for testing kits every hour but these products sell out quickly and prices can change rapidly. Delivery times are estimated by providers but are also subject to change due to courier delays and supply chain issues.
Some sellers charge prices far above the average ("price gouging"). Be vigilant about unusually high prices, and always consider your options carefully before buying.

Name Product Price From Test Type Results Timeframe (Mins) Stock Availability Benefits
Boson Rapid SARS CoV-2 Antigen Test
$199.99 (20-pack)
Delivery: January 31 - February 2, 2022
Antigen At-Home Tele-Test Service
Antigen At-Home Tele-Test Service
$65.00 (1-pack)
Delivery: January 22-27, 2022
Test yourself at home via a video call with a trained professional. These tests are approved for domestic and international travel.
Boson Rapid SARS CoV-2 Antigen Test
Boson Rapid SARS CoV-2 Antigen Test
$159.99 (20-pack)
Delivery: February 14-28, 2022

Compare up to 4 providers

Need more COVID-19 news? Head to our coronavirus information hub and guide to wearing masks in Canada.

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