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.


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.

  1. Cassidy

    Out of curiosity, did your test results from Covid Clinic have a QR code on the bottom? I did the expedited one from them a while back and they did, so i’m curious about if there’s any actual difference to the results they send out. Thanks

    1. Jayce YYC

      There was no QR code on our results but this was back in July so things may have changed

  2. SJ

    Would this apply to Hawaii? Any experience with Hawaii. Travel restrictions?

  3. Greg

    Thanks for the info. Unfortunately at this point in time it looks like international travel is like the old Aeroplan… big extra surcharge. For my family of four, will be an extra $1000 fee to travel. Hopefully I can shave several hundred off with a free test, but I won’t probably count on it. I really wish for everyone’s safety that there was more low cost or free options to get tested or even randomly tested.

  4. Jennifer Kasteel

    Thank you for this! Your information is exactly what I was looking for. We are headed to Disneyland in December. Hoping by some miracle testing isn’t required then, but at least I’m now equipped with the info I need in case we do need to be tested. Thanks again!!

  5. Simone

    Would be interested in seeing what the results look like from that free test. Definitely interested in saving $150 using your suggestion. Currently, their website says 2+ days for results. How long did it take for you to get yours?

  6. Dylan Oliver

    What address did you use for the test. Looks like a US address. Do they accept Canadian License for ID. Just worried about a mismatch at the border.

    1. Jayce YYC

      Used the address of my hotel as my US address. There were no issues using our driver’s licenses and NEXUS card for my daughter. Passports work as well. There should be no concerns about an address mismatch at the border.

  7. Jay*

    As an experienced traveler, kind of surprised you didn’t take the initiative to go up to the check-in desk agents prior to boarding commencing. Oppose to waiting to be called, which ultimately led to being pulled aside during the boarding process. I will blame it on not being able to travel as much as you usually do and out of practice. 😏

    1. Jayce YYC

      Fair point. I went to the desk on the outbound from YYC-LAX but totally forgot to do it at LAX but ya – I won’t make the mistake again coming back from JFK.

  8. Susan

    The Shopper’s Drug Mart website is stating the price of the Covid Testing is $199. We had 3 trips booked in within the next 10 months…..the cost of the covid testing really has to be factored into the overall travel cost now.

    1. Jay*

      Just means that much more of a “privilege” to travel during these times.

  9. Russ L

    Thanks for the article Jayce. We are travelling to Cali later this month. We will be flying out of San Diego. I see COVID Clinic has a drive through site in town. In the FAQs it says you can also walk up or bike up. Did you see anyone walking up in Anaheim? Wont have a vehicle.

    1. Jayce YYC

      My clinic was a walk up clinic so everyone was on foot. If it says you can walk-up, I think you’ll be fine. Good luck Russ!

  10. Gillian Rokosj

    Good and useful information and much easier to understand than the government website. Thank you

  11. Al

    Great article but I’ll wait til I don’t have any testing requirements. Seems to me that if your vaccinated your good to go, once herd immunity is reached, who cares about the others! This has always been the science until recently. Anyways the cost of testing my family in and out is just not worth the time and huge extra cost. I’m happy to remain local or national until we get back to normal :). I remember right after 9-11 went to Australia. Well 4.5 hours line up in Sydney then another 3 hour line up in Auckland flying home. Took a while but they figured it out. I can wait. Good luck to the rest of you travellers.

    1. Jay*

      Look at it as, imagine how many other travelers are currently deterred from traveling due to the additional incurred testings costs & headaches. Enjoy the lower passenger traffic for the time being. Will be absolute chaos for awhile once the testing requirements are removed.

  12. JMyvr

    Really great article man! Super useful information…been leery of making a trip down south but just may consider it armed with this information.

    Just skip over the negativity here. Some people have nothing better to do with their time unfortunately 😂

  13. DenB® YTO

    Sad arguments on both sides of fake debate. All testing should have been free and ubiquitous since the outset of this wretched business. That’s how Taiwan kept death rates lower than a thousandth that of genius countries like Canada and USA, ever preoccupied with “scarce health care resources”. That stupid preoccupation cost lives, jobs, freedom, property, time. If anyone gets tested, I’m in favour. Test test test. If the impoverished Government of The United States of America discovers they’ve inadequately funded free testing, they can adapt. More free testing is how we turned the corner on HIV all those years ago and it’s a tragedy the next generation has no memory. All these complainants above would probably have imprisoned Jean Valjean.

  14. Kevin K

    Thanks Jayce, great article lots of good information here and it helps clarify things for those who wish to travel to the USA.

  15. TimYYC YYC

    Those of you who are anti-travel … why even bother reading a travel blog? Go home, stay home, “stay safe” and come back to participate when you’re no longer Covid scared. But be careful of the Epsilon variant and all the others till Omega!

    1. Jay*

      No kidding. 😅

  16. Leon Lau

    Welcome back online Jaycee! I’ve missed your insights.

  17. Mike Nearing

    Disappointing where this blog has taken us. Hoping for better in the future. Maybe there are too few credit card offers this week?

  18. Andrew

    “This test will definitively tell you whether or not you were actually exposed or not.”

    You do realize that individuals can be exposed to COVID-19 but not contract COVID-19? A positive test result would indicate you’ve had exposure (and contracted COVID-19), but a negative test result cannot definitively prove that you were not actually exposed.

  19. Adeline

    FWIW, it varies greatly among the different test providers in the States, some will have no issues processing the tests as “free” even if you tell them openly it’s for travel. Bonus point: if they know where you intend to travel to, they can double check to make sure you get the correct test. I had to make a couple of round trips between US and Canada in the last few weeks and you’d be surprised how many people still are caught off guard by the fine print. If you have the wrong kind of test, or if your paperwork does not specify what kind of test it was, you will be denied boarding. Also, flying to the US on AC, in each case they checked the negative test results before boarding. The way they implemented this is that you have to have a paper boarding pass to get on the plane. So either at the check in counter, or at the gate (if you used the mobile pass to get through security) they check your paperwork and print you a paper pass, which you can then use to board. The US customs officers do not check anything but your passport though.

  20. Jonathan Andrews

    SMH…from telling lies to non essential travel on routes like New York–Dubai–Paris–Dubai when the government was advising against non essential travel – a bit disappointed where this blog is headed and advocating.
    Just show us the kosher ways please.

    1. Sarah

      You seem like you would be fun at parties

  21. Ron Johnson

    I agree with Cameron Mochrie. It is wrong to suggest you lie in order to get a free test. If you are going to travel you have a responsibility for meeting and paying for the necessary health requirements during a pandemic. Shame.

    1. Reed Sutton

      You can win the churning game if you have shame. What are you doing here?

      1. Reed Sutton


    2. Jayce YYC

      Clearly this has been a divisive article but nobody is lying here.

      There were reports of people going to Disneyland that were COVID positive. We decided that it was best to get tested in case we needed to make arrangements with our airline rather than get turned away at the gate. We had rapid PCR tests booked at LAX ( and intended on testing on day of travel. These test results as a result of our possible exposure at Disneyland worked for both our piece of mind and government requirements.

      1. Pne

        The author says “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.” It’s true, we are all theoretically exposed to covid anytime we are in a place with another person, but here the intention of getting the test is about fulfilling testing travel requirements. So yes, you are advocating lying and it is and should be problematic to you on a personal and ethical level if you don’t see that. And like so many commenters seem to think, it’s not really cheating the US government but its taxpayers who are subsidizing your cheating because you are cheap. The most ardent of your defenders are the ones who have resorted to petty name-calling. That is an unfortunate representation of your viewpoints and the readership. I don’t churn or manufacturer spending and have read this blog for interesting travel ideas and reviews of various airlines and hotels.

        1. Mindy Selby

          We used COVID Clinic as well but paid $150 each for 1-2 day PCR tests that they accepted as being for travel. One of our two results did not come back within the two days which required my husband to take a second, rapid test the morning of our flight. Covid Clinic was very difficult to contact, we waited on line for 30 minutes, twice, only to be cut off and told to email. This was a Sunday morning (yes they were open for calls) and we received email responses 4 days later. We took our tests at 17:00, July 22 for our July 25,16:40 departure at the Palo Alto drive through location.
          I revived my results Saturday July 24th at 2 pm and although we were assured that my husband’s results would be back by 11:59 Saturday night, the did not arrive by Sunday morning. The whole experience was extremely stressful. Finally when we did get through to them at 10:45 Sunday morning their agent confirmed that they didn’t have the results and that she would put an “Urgent tag” on the file and that we would have the results in “a few hours”. Well we were checking in 4 hours later. We found a Carbon Health clinic in San Francisco that did a 3 hour test for $165. We were in and out in 10 minutes and received the results 40 minutes later. The Covid Clinic test result came in just as we were checking in and had already shown our test results to the agent.

          I would never recommend Covid Clinic for testing.

          As far as the arrival experience, we breezed through customs and immigration with our ArriveCan ticket obtained from the kiosk upon landing and our negative covid tests on our phones. Upon leaving the secured area we were handed a box with a Life Labs “at home test” to be submitted within 24 hours and we were on our way to our YVR-YYC flight.
          We booked our on line appointments for taking the test for the next morning, called FedEx for pick up and that was it.

          Good luck!

      2. Ron Johnson

        Let me quote you: “As you can see from the screenshot below, COVID Clinic is stating that the free test is not for travel.” You are counselling us to use this test for travel. That is cheating the system. It may not be technically a lie if you aren’t asked, but it is cheating nonetheless. And you are asking American taxpayers to pay for something you need for travel. Just frankly preposterous and not socially responsible.

        1. Don Winston

          Get off your high horse. I’m sure you’ve never worked outside the spirit of a credit card sign up or a miles promotion. Give me a break.

          1. Ron Johnson

            Nope. Never have. And won’t. Cheating is cheating. It’s about ethics. I won’t accuse you of anything. I don’t know you.

            1. Tom Stein

              Ron your a loser. Get over yourself.

              I loved the article thank you for taking the time to write it Jayce.

              1. Ron Johnson

                Haha. Name calling is sign you can’t win the argument. But OK here’s my last comment. Suppose the shoe was on the other foot and American Travel blogs were advising Americans travelling in Canada how to exploit a loophole and get their required covid-19 tests for free, paid for by Canadian taxpayers instead paying for them personally as they should, I guess all you folks who like this article today would be fine with that. I don’t think the majority of Canadians would agree with you. We are in the middle of a pandemic. The fourth wave is starting. Let’s all be kind and calm, and try to do the right thing. This article was a mistake in an otherwise excellent blog.

                1. Tom Stein

                  You don’t have an argument just moral judgment. So I judged you.

                2. DenB® YTO

                  I’d be in favour of anyone, regardless of nationality, being tested at government expense, under any conditions, with no restrictions.

                3. Terrance Whitford

                  And with that, Ron Johnson rode off into the sunset on his fine steed, ready to take on the next challenge amongst his peers in the Social Justice Warrior League.

                  One day, children will speak his name to ward off dark spirits and ask themselves WWRJD … what would Ron Johnson do?

                  One man can’t make a difference? Ron Johnson would say otherwise. WWRJD indeed.

                  LOL. I’m from Detroit and IDGAF about people getting COVID tests. Do you think that this is the reason this country is so f*****d up?

                  1. Andy K

                    I’d rather be part of the Social Justice League over the Social parasite league if I’m being honest..

  22. Ericinnl

    Thank you Jayce. This information is going to be very helpful for me in October if things don’t open up further. I’m interested to hear your take on the arrivecan thing as well.

    1. Jayce YYC

      Funny enough, that’s the next article. I hope to have it up shortly. Thanks for your support Eriniccl

  23. Sergio T

    LOL. All these social justice warriors that are railing against this article should really ask themselves why the government requires a test 72 hours prior to travel and AT ARRIVAL? If you want to get mad at government waste, direct your anger at these stupid rules.

  24. Sonny

    I disagree with the negative comments here. With COVID not being detectable without a test, who’s to say whether or not you’ve been exposed? I have definitely taken tests on even the slightest suspicion of exposure. If you’re transiting airport’s or out in public spaces, your exposure risk increases. If the test is accepted for travel and gives you piece of mind at the same time, what’s the issue?

  25. Evan T

    This is a bad article. Consume health care resources in another country rather than pay the costs associated with your discretionary travel?

    1. Mike Lucas

      Its called tourism revenue and yes it does directly benefit the USA government when Canadians travel there…and it is worth billions annually. Its just a cost of doing business.

  26. James

    Yes, let the US government pay for your discretionary travel, when you contribute nothing to the federal government or reducing its debt levels.

    1. Rick Astro

      Wasting US taxpayer dollars gives me a raging hard on.

      Before you ask me how I’d feel if the shoe was flipped, Just know that I also cheat Canadian taxpayer dollars whenever possible.

    2. Tom Stein

      Why not. Clump it in with the discretionary overseas war budget. You can contribute to the blood bath of foreigners that died in the wars.

  27. cameron mochrie

    Article could be shorter: “Lie that you think you’ve been exposed in order to get a free test.”

    1. Tom Stein

      Lots of fragile losers commenting. I wonder how many of them are churning.

      1. MK

        On what planet is that the same? I suppose churning a credit card puts people in the same category as those who jumped the queue to get vaccinated by lieing about health conditions or getting two ‘first’ shots in different provinces? But sure.. if it makes you feel better about yourself?

        1. Reed Sutton

          These are the kind of people who will survive when the zombie apocalypse happens.

        2. Tom Stein

          The planet of moral internet crusaders. Populated by hypocrites shaking their finger at people.

          1. MK

            Learn how to make a point instead of pulling together mindless comparables. I don’t even have a strong view on the article- just your ridiculous post and counter argument. Feeling guilty much? Go eat a chocolate bar instead of going on mindless rants

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