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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, a PCR test can be used to prove that you're COVID-free.

The information on this page is current as of March 10, 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. Note that rapid antigen tests administered or observed by a professional is acceptable if taken within 1 day of travel to or from Canada.

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

BTNX Rapid Response Covid-19 Antigen Test Kit

BTNX Rapid Response Covid-19 Antigen Test Kit

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- Delivery: 1-5 business days
- Same-day shipping on all orders placed by 4PM EST
- Competitive, bulk pricing available
- Antigen test
- Results in 15-20 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $45 for 5-pack
  • Free shipping over $99

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ECOTEST Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test Kit

ECOTEST Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test Kit

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- Delivery: 1-5 business days
- Same-day shipping on all orders placed by 4PM EST
- Competitive, bulk pricing available
- Antigen test
- Results in 15-20 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $13 for 1-pack
  • Free shipping over $99

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Boson Rapid COVID 19 Antigen Test

Boson Rapid COVID 19 Antigen Test

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Delivery: 3-7 days

- Antigen test
- Results in 15-20 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $129.99 for 20-pack
  • Free shipping over $99.99

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Roche SARS-CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test

Roche SARS-CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test

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Delivery: 3-7 days

- Antigen test
- Results in 15 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $299.99 for 25-pack
  • Free shipping over $99.99

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BTNX Rapid Test

BTNX Rapid Test

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Delivery: 1-5 days

- Antigen test
- Results in 15 minutes
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  • $70 for 5-pack
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Boson Rapid SARS CoV-2 Antigen Test

Boson Rapid SARS CoV-2 Antigen Test

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Delivery: 1-5 days

- Antigen test
- Results in 15-20 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $20 for 20-pack
  • Delivery in 1-5 business days

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Artron Test

Artron Test

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Delivery: 1-5 days

- Antigen test
- Results in 15-20 minutes
- Health Canada approved

  • $275 for 25-pack
  • Delivery in 1-5 business days

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SD Biosensor Rapid Test

SD Biosensor Rapid Test

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Delivery: 1-5 days

- Antigen test
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  • $350 for 25-pack
  • Delivery in 1-5 business days

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Antigen At-Home Tele-Test Service

Antigen At-Home Tele-Test Service

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Delivery: 1-5 days

- Antigen test
- Administered by health professional via video call
- Results within 1 hour
- Approved for travel to some countries

  • $40 for 1-pack
  • Delivery in 1-5 business days

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

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