How to Get Proof of Your Negative COVID-19 Test

You may have to show a recent negative COVID-19 test to travel, return to work, go to school, or attend public events. Here are some tips to navigate the process and spend less.

Hands holding 3 negative covid tests Illustration: Kiersten Essenpreis

Until the worldwide explosion of the omicron variant, it seemed that showing your vaccination card would be enough to resume many aspects of normal life. Increasingly, however, you also may need to also show a recent negative test to travel abroad, go on a cruise ship, return to work, or attend school or public events.

So if, for instance, you’re craving some winter warmth, you may have to get tested. Puerto Rico started requiring travelers to show a negative test as of Dec. 27, 2021, whether or not they’re vaccinated. Hawaii has a similar requirement. Cruise ship companies including Carnival and Royal Caribbean have testing requirements (although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised travelers to avoid cruise ships).

More COVID-19 Resources

Many foreign countries admit only visitors with a recent negative COVID-19 test, as does the U.S. for returning Americans and foreigners. You can find country-by-country specifics via webpages put together by the State Department or travel company Kayak.

Some universities, including North Carolina State University and the University of Richmond, as well as the District of Columbia Public Schools, recently started requiring proof of negative tests to return to 2022 classes, with exact requirements differing among institutions.

Such requirements have arisen amid record cases in the U.S. because of the more transmissible omicron variant that was first identified in South Africa in late November and has since surged in other parts of the world. But the U.S. is struggling with testing supplies, with lines around blocks at some sites and drugstores limiting the number of home tests people can buy.

Make sure to check to determine which test you need (this Food and Drug Administration page explains the types of COVID-19 tests). Often, the results of rapid antigen tests will be accepted to show negative COVID-19 status for shorter periods of time, such as 24 hours, and more comprehensive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests—which take longer to process—last for 48 to 72 hours as proof of your COVID-free status. 

If you also need to prove your vaccination status, see “How to Prove You’re Vaccinated for COVID-19.”

Factors Behind What You'll Pay

How much you end up paying to determine and document your COVID-19 status depends on your health insurance, income level, where you get tested, and other factors. 

The 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act obliges insurers to pay whatever labs charge for “medically appropriate” COVID-19 tests. Such tests include those for anyone who feels symptoms or has been in close contact with someone confirmed or suspected of having the virus.

As beneficial as sun and relaxation in Hawaii might be to your health, a COVID-19 test is probably not medically necessary under that definition, so you may have to pay for the test if you just need it for travel purposes.

“If the test is for personal health reasons, like a suspected exposure or possible symptoms, then Americans generally should not have to pay for the test,” says Cynthia Cox, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on health issues. “If you are getting the test because of a workplace requirement or for public health screening reasons, then your insurer is allowed to charge you for the test.”

Costs at public facilities vary. “If there are any out-of-pocket costs—for example, in the case of no or only partial coverage by private insurance—health centers will provide sliding fee discounts for eligible patients based on income and family size,” the Department of Health and Human Services says.

Because many test centers have been overwhelmed in recent weeks, try to research fees and schedules online before you arrive. “If you go to a test site operated by local governments, private companies including pharmacies and medical practices or not-for-profit organizations, check with the testing site and your insurer to make sure there isn’t a fee for the test,” New York State advises residents in advice that is also sound for other states.

How to Find Low-Cost Test Sites

For tests not covered by insurance, many states and local communities administer low- or no-cost COVID-19 tests, regardless of the reason, in medical facilities, labs, schools, churches, and pharmacies, as well as at temporary locations—sometimes as simple as parked vans or tables on the street, some available only for a few hours on a particular day. 

A good place to find testing sites is the Health Resources and Administration website, which allows you to search health centers by ZIP code or city, or this page on the HHS site. As you navigate your way to a local health department, you will find state, county, and city sources of information, such as Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 testing page.

California alone operates 6,288 testing sites, which amounts to almost a third of the testing facilities in the U.S., according to the California Department of Public Health.

For free tests, “libraries, fire stations, and public health departments might be the easiest way,” says Cox at the Kaiser Family Foundation. But starting this month, "the Biden administration is expected to start requiring private insurers to reimburse enrollees for the cost of rapid at-home tests.”

You'll Need a Dose of Patience

It may be difficult to book appointments ahead of time, so prepare to wait if you go to a testing center that accepts walk-in customers. For two December tests in New York City, I waited an hour and 45 minutes, and 3½ hours.

With the recent surge in demand, some labs may be unable to process PCR results quickly enough to prove your negative status. For example, CityMD, an urgent care center that operates in New York and New Jersey, wrote on its webpage in late December, “Due to increased national laboratory testing, the current turnaround time is averaging 5-7 days to receive your COVID-19 PCR (Nasal Swab) results.” 

If you can’t find a low-cost test, keep in mind that private companies can charge whatever they like, so make sure to ask before the cotton swab goes up your nose. One site that compares pricing and availability (and also partners with airlines including United and Delta) is TrustAssure, which searches commercial pharmacies and labs near you and can schedule appointments. 

Once the latest COVID-19 spike from omicron eases, it’s likely to become easier to prove you are COVID-negative because demand for testing will ease and turnaround times will improve. Eventually such requirements will become less common and then end. But with the unpredictable pandemic continuing into 2022, you should make sure to check the exact requirements—such as whether you need a rapid antigen test or more accurate PCR test—long before you need the proof, lest the document be rejected when you need it most, such as at the airline counter before a much-deserved holiday.

Headshot of CRO freelance writer Adam Tanner

Adam Tanner

Adam Tanner is a Consumer Reports contributing editor. He is also the author of “Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records” and an associate at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science.