How to Get Free At-Home COVID-19 Tests

You can get four free tests from the government, and your insurer is required to cover up to eight tests per month. The devil is in the details.

An at-home COVID-19 test showing a negative result. Photo: Getty Images

With the omicron variant sweeping across the U.S., many people are relying on testing to determine whether that sore throat is COVID-19 or that exposure at work led to an active infection. Until recently, at-home antigen tests like BinaxNow—which can help answer those questions quickly and easily—were expensive (generally at least $10 per test) and often out of reach. 

Now, however, anyone in the U.S. can order a total of four free tests per household via The U.S. Postal Service will ship the tests directly to your door free of charge. 

For people who need more tests, private health insurers are now required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home antigen tests per person per month, beginning with any tests purchased on or after Jan. 15. What exactly you have to do to get those tests at no cost to you will vary depending on your insurance plan. (PCR tests and rapid tests ordered or administered by a health provider continue to be fully covered by insurance.)

“There is a lot of confusion on how this initiative will roll out,” says Caitlin Donovan, a spokesperson for the National Patient Advocate Foundation in Washington, D.C. “So much of it is up to the individual health plans, and most are now scrambling to develop a strategy.” 

Here’s what to know.

The Basics

The new federal rules give insurance companies a few options. If your insurer sets up a network of pharmacies and retailers, you should be able to pick up tests from one of them with no up-front costs. This may involve taking the tests to the pharmacy counter and checking out using your insurance card. If you buy tests from an out-of-network store, you can submit a reimbursement claim for up to $12 per test. If your insurer doesn’t set up a network of stores, it will be on the hook to reimburse you for the full cost of any covered tests.

More on COVID-19

There are a few caveats. Your insurer doesn’t have to cover the cost of tests required by your employer or your school. The reimbursement policy also doesn’t apply to people without private insurance. People with Medicaid should contact their state Medicaid office for specifics on coverage of at-home COVID-19 tests. And people enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan should check it for details. People with Medicare and those who are uninsured are still eligible for free in-person testing (with some restrictions) but aren’t covered by the new rules on home tests.

Another challenge is the current national shortage of at-home COVID-19 antigen tests. Lindsay Dawson, director of healthcare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, analyzed the availability of at-home rapid tests during the week of Jan. 3 and found that they were available from the websites of six major retailers less than 10 percent of the time. 

“It’s great that you can get them for free, but you have to be able to find them first,” she says. 

How to Get a Covered Test

While the federal rules require insurers to cover up to eight tests per month, the specifics are left up to the individual insurance companies. That means consumers need to check with their health plan insurer to see exactly how it’s complying with the federal requirements. Check your insurer’s website; many have posted instructions or FAQs for finding covered tests or getting reimbursed for tests. 

“How successful this new policy will be hinges on how quickly insurers can put processes in place to make it easy for consumers to buy at-home COVID-19 tests with no up-front costs,” says Katie Keith, principal of Keith Policy Solutions, a healthcare consultancy for foundations and nonprofits, and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “It will take a bit of time for this to all work out. It will be messy at the start.”

Initially, as insurers work to set up networks of online and in-person stores where members can pick up at-home test kits with no up-front costs, a more labor-intensive process will likely be more common: submitting receipts for reimbursement. Some pharmacy chains gave us statements indicating that they are in the process of working out details with certain insurance companies to allow customers to get free tests by showing their insurance card, but that in the meantime, people should expect to pay at the register for tests and submit claims for reimbursement.

Lori Loannou

Lori Ioannou

Lori Ioannou is an award-winning journalist who writes on health, consumer affairs, careers, small business, investing, and technology. She was the senior editor for special reports at CNBC and an executive editor at Time Inc.