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How to Get a Free COVID-19 Test in the US

I, like many of you, have been patiently awaiting a pathway to normalized travel.

During 2020, I had booked and cancelled three international speculative bookings in hopes that COVID was behind us. Unfortunately, every one of those trips was cancelled.

When 2021 rolled around, I made an additional three speculative bookings: one to Los Angeles in July, another to New York in August, and finally, a trip to Maui in December.

I felt confident that these trips would be possible as our family had received our full round of vaccinations in June, leaving plenty of time to be considered “fully vaccinated”.

Indeed, when the Government of Canada announced the elimination of these quarantine hotels for the fully vaccinated, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel – but not everything was rosy.  

Testing Requirements for Travel to the US

With the restrictions for fully vaccinated Canadians being lifted as of July 5, 2021, there were still two onerous requirements for travellers headed south of the border: a negative COVID test no more than three days prior to travelling to the US, as well the same requirement inbound to Canada.

The US CDC requires only a NAAT or antigen test within three days of travel. A rapid antigen test for asymptomatic travellers was allowed for our WestJet flight to Los Angeles, attracting a $40 fee per person at Shoppers Drug Mart (currently available in Alberta and Ontario).

Testing Requirements for Inbound Travel to Canada

On the other hand, the Government of Canada’s requirement of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of travel was more daunting. The PCR test is a much more accurate test that is usually much more expensive to conduct.

If you take a quick Google search for PCR tests in the city that you are visiting, you are likely to come across an avalanche of results, almost all of which are geared towards Americans and touted as “free”. When looking closer, the term “free” means that the test is covered by your medical insurance and for the uninsured, the fee is waived or covered by the county or state.

But what about Canadians? Do we need to pay the US$150–200 per test? Thankfully, no – at least if you’re smart about it.

Getting Tested in the US

For most US states that you will be travelling to, there’s a Walgreens, CVS, or Rite Aid that offers free testing for those that are uninsured (including Canadians) or those potentially exposed to COVID, but be sure to check the type of test being offered and compare it to the list of accepted tests on the Government of Canada website

Also note that many of these testing clinics are drive-through only, so if you don’t have a vehicle, this could be a challenge, which was the case for us in Los Angeles.

Free Covid test graphic from government website

Luckily, there was another outfit called COVID Clinic that had a walk-up testing facility in Anaheim, where we were staying. COVID Clinic seems to have quite a few options across the whole of the United States, so make sure to check if there is one in your area.

find drive-thru testing covid 19 graphic

How to Get the Test for Free

A caveat before I delve into the details here. As you can see from the screenshot below, COVID Clinic is stating that the free test is not for travel.

However, the test can be used if you believe you have been potentially exposed to COVID-19, say on the flight over, or at the hotel you are staying at, or from a restaurant you visited on your trip. This test will definitively tell you whether or not you were actually exposed or not.  Now if you chose to get this test done within 72 hours of your return to Canada, well… that’s your call.  

When booking your appointment online, you will be asked a series of questions, the most important of which is whether or not you may have been exposed to COVID within the last 14 days. Your answer to this should be “yes” to ensure you qualify for the free test.

We were worried about our potential exposure a few days before our flight, so we got tested. The rationale here is that if we were exposed and our tests came back positive, we would need to make further arrangements to stay in Los Angeles.

When arriving at the testing facility, we were asked whether the tests were for travel, and we stated that we were taking these tests because we suspected exposure to COVID. And with that, we were given our tests.  

Getting the Results

I received both a text message as well as an email with the results of our COVID RT-PCR test, both of which indicated that we were thankfully negative for COVID.

The test was completed at approximately 2:30pm on Thursday, July 29 and we received our negative results at 11:37pm on July 30. Your mileage may vary on how quickly you get your results back, but ours were quite expeditious, likely due to the fact that the testing facility and the lab that processed the results were a mere 20 miles apart.  

Testing Verification for Travel to the US

You may be wondering what you do with your test results or who you show them to. Based on our experience and the experience of other friends, we were not asked for our test results for our outbound flight to the US.

There were no announcements or verification checks at check-in or at the gate, so it is unclear why we took these tests at all.

I would suggest that the airlines’ systems in place for verifying test results are lacking, but I would still recommend getting an antigen test in case you have a gate agent that asks you for it. The worst-case scenario here is that you are potentially denied boarding.  

Testing Verification for Inbound Travel to Canada

The inbound flight was a totally different experience. As we were in the Delta Sky Lounge at LAX Terminal 2 until just prior to boarding, we did not hear our names called to verify our passports and other information. As a result, when we attempted to board, we were pulled aside to the check-in desk so agents could confirm that we were able to fly.

The WestJet agent checked our passports and then asked us to show our negative COVID test results as well as our completed ArriveCAN receipt (more on the ArriveCAN process in a later post).  

After we landed at Calgary International Airport, we waited in a hellaciously long NEXUS line of over an hour to see a customs agent. The customs agent asked for the same things the WestJet agent asked for at LAX: our passport, negative COVID tests and the ArriveCAN receipt.

After close examination of our paperwork, he waived us through and we were able to exit the secure customs area, only to be met with a wall of people waiting in line for their on-arrival COVID tests.

Conclusion

In this current climate, in which COVID-19 tests are the key to unlocking travel, leveraging free testing facilities to complete your testing requirements whenever possible may be essential to your ability to travel.

Hopefully, sometime in the near future, testing will not be required for the fully vaccinated travelling to and from the US. But until that time, be sure to understand your options.

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