PCR vs lateral flow COVID-19 tests for travel

Wondering whether to go antigen (lateral flow) or PCR? The country you're visiting might stipulate which it requires, but in some cases it's up to you.

It’s important to note that when it comes to COVID-19 tests for travel, the decision over PCR vs lateral flow will usually be made for you. The governments of many countries will stipulate that you’ll need a negative “polymerase chain reaction” (PCR) test result to be allowed into their country. Others are happy to accept lateral flow (antigen) or PCR tests.

As of 30 November, your mandatory post-arrival tests (day 2 and, for some, day 8) must be PCR tests. In fact, test providers can’t sell you a test for these purposes unless it’s a PCR test. The rules were briefly relaxed in October/November for vaccinated arrivals, but this decision was reversed in response to the Omicron variant.

To be classed as “vaccinated”, it’ll need to be as part of the UK vaccine roll-out, under an approved vaccination programme in Europe or the US, or with a full course of the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna or Janssen vaccines from a relevant public health body in a country that the UK government has specified it recognises (such as Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt, Eswatini, Georgia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, The Occupied Palestinian Territories, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay or Vietnam).

It’s absolutely crucial to check the entry requirements for the specific country you’re heading to several days before you travel. If a PCR test is a requirement, then it’s generally more expensive when you need a faster turnaround. You must also check the UK government’s testing requirement for when you return to the UK.

However, there are a few instances where you can make up your own mind. So here are the main differences between these now-ubiquitous types of test!

What’s the difference between a PCR test and a lateral flow test for COVID-19?

PCRLateral flow (antigen)
Getting the resultSample is sent to a lab for analysisDoes not need to be sent to a lab
Turnaround timeTypically 1-4 daysTypically 20-30 minutes
Sensitivity and accuracyMore sensitive and accurateLess sensitive and accurate
AcceptanceAcceptable for most travel purposesAcceptable for some travel purposes
CostTypically £40-60Typically £20-40

Both lateral flow and PCR COVID-19 tests are tests for active coronavirus infections. PCR tests have generally been used only when somebody is showing symptoms of coronavirus. But with international travel back on the menu, many governments require a negative PCR test from all arrivals.

Neither type requires an expert to administer the test, but only a lateral flow gives a result without a lab being involved. That can be a major advantage both in terms of time and money – the courier costs on PCRs can quickly mount up. However, clinics are springing up all over the place – at airports, out-of-town shopping centres and on high streets (meaning that if you do need a PCR test for travel, you aren’t necessarily at the mercy of Royal Mail or DPD to ferry your PCR test sample off to the lab somewhere in Oxfordshire). Some companies, such as Randox, have placed drop-off boxes at convenient locations in towns and cities, to keep delivery costs down.

The verdict

The type of test you need for the country you’re entering is obviously more important than your personal preference. But where you do have the option, choose lateral flow for speed, ease, cost and convenience, and PCR for sensitivity and accuracy.

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