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From NHS apps to PCR tests: A day-by-day checklist of what you need to do before you travel

Congratulations. You’ve finally done it. You’ve just clicked ‘book’ for your holiday in the not-too-distant future. Or perhaps you have a rescheduled holiday booking, which is miraculously looking hopeful to go ahead. Either way, you’re going away. You deserve it.

Savvier travellers will be heading to one of the few ‘open’ green-listed countries such as Iceland, Portugal or our favourite overseas territory (Gibraltar, as if you needed confirmation) – the only destinations you can get to, and return from, without quarantine in the UK or major hassle on arrival.

Travellers happier to suck up the UK quarantine on return (and ignore the most recent Government words of warning) might, however, be off to an ‘amber listed destination with minimal hassle on arrival – like a Greek island.

Wherever you’re going, unlike the heady pre-pandemic days of yore, this is not your cue to sit on your hands and daydream about cocktails on the beach / by the geyser / with the macaques. This is the moment to get organised.

Holidaying in this post-lockdown world of ours requires significant forward planning to make sure your trip is as hassle-free as possible. The countdown begins 14 days before you go…

14 days before travel

Check the rules (all destinations)

There’s no point checking the rules much further in advance than this (other than at the moment of booking, of course) because things can change on a day-by-day basis. Things you’ll want to look out for are:

  • Do you need to take a PCR test before travel (for most destinations, this is currently the case)?
  • Do you need to take a test on arrival?
  • Does your destination accept the NHS App as proof of vaccination, to sidestep the need to take PCR tests?
  • What documentation do you need to present on arrival, and how long before travel do you need to organise this?  you can go straight to the source and check the FCDO country advice page for your destination, where the ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Entry Requirements’ sections will fill you in on everything you need to know.

10 days before travel

Organise your pre-departure PCR test (if required by destination)

A large number of countries are requesting a PCR test for arrivals, taken no earlier than 72 hours before departure, although in the not-too-distant future it is likely that Europe and other destinations will accept a vaccine passport in lieu of PCR tests for vaccinated arrivals (for British citizens, in the way of the NHS app) – Iceland already does this.

For the time being, you will probably need to have a test done. To do this, you must book a private PCR test; the NHS testing service cannot be used for travel.

There are two viable options: ordering a home test kit or booking an appointment at a clinic or drive-through test centre. Or a third, very exclusive option of getting a doctor to come to your home and administer a test, at a significant cost.

Most home kits will arrive within 24 hours and should be sent back the same day as you take your sample. The sample will then be analysed in a lab and you should receive your results within 48 hours – various companies have different guarantees, but these days many have much quicker turnarounds, sometimes same-day.

Test providers are expecting a surge in custom when travel opens up, so if you need a test for your destination, it’s worth booking in good time ahead of the trip. Ten days is a sensible time frame – the testing company will likely ask for your date of departure, to time the arrival of your kit if you’re taking it at home.

Destinations typically require tests to have been taken within a specific time frame of your arrival (usually 72 hours), so bear this in mind when organising your test. The UK Government doesn’t have a list of companies offering pre-holiday testing, but all of the companies on the list of Government’s approved PCR clinics offering post-trip PCR testing will offer this service.

Seven days before travel

Double-check the rules (all destinations)

Boring, I know. But now is the time to go back through the steps you did 14 days before travel. Rules may have changed in the last week regarding test requirements, quarantine, vaccination certificates, or traffic light status of your destination. With seven days to go, you still have plenty of time to sort everything out.

Three days before travel

Take your PCR test (if required by destination)

If you have an ‘ at home’ PCR test, take your swabs first thing in the morning and return to the laboratory to ensure you have your results before you travel. If you are going into a clinic, organize this as early as possible to ensure no delays in getting your results.

Organise your test to be taken before flight home (all destinations)

Anyone returning to the UK, even those who are fully vaccinated, and even those who are returning from a ‘green list’ country, must take a test 72 hours before your flight travelling back to the UK departs. If you want to be crystal-clear on the rules, you can watch this Youtube video posted by the Department for Transport.

You must have evidence of your negative PCR, antigen or rapid flow test, whether printed out or in email or text format, to present at your departure airport. Note that do-it-yourself lateral flow tests will not count – you need a certificate from a clinic.

There is a chance your flight or holiday company will offer this at a discount or for free, in which case, get in touch with them at this point. If not, it is worth getting in touch with testing companies at your destination now, to make sure you can get into the clinic closest to your accommodation. And nobody wants to be sorting out boring logistics like this while on the beach.

You can book your test either by email, an online booking portal, or on the phone. The FCDO gives information on accredited testing facilities in each country. For Portugal, for example, the FCDO links to this page.

While contacting your testing facility, double-check that they will supply you with the documentation you require. There are strict guidelines on what information the certificate should include, which you can find here. Also, check their payment methods and what credit cards they accept.


Organise your tests to be taken on arrival back in the UK (all destinations)

You will need to take at least one PCR test, regardless of whether you are returning from a green or amber destination. For red list arrivals, it’s a different matter entirely as you’ll be heading to a quarantine hotel.

Green list arrivals (you can see the full list of green countries, here) must take one PCR test on or before Day 2 of arriving back in the UK. You do not need to go into quarantine while you wait for your results. The Government has a list of accredited PCR test clinics, here, although it is also worth checking with your flight or holiday company to see if they have any discounts on tests after arrival home.

Amber list arrivals (you can see the full list of amber countries, here) must take a test on or before Day 2 of arriving back in the UK, and then on or after Day 8. You will need to quarantine for 10 days. The Government has a list of accredited PCR clinics, here, but – again – it’s worth checking to see if your flight company offers any discounts on these.

If you opt to ‘Test to Release’, you will need to book an additional test on Day 5 of arrival back in the UK – at your expense. You will still need to take tests on Days 2 and 8 after arrival back in the UK  but will be able to exit quarantine as soon as you have received a negative result from your Day 5 test. More information on Test to Release can be found here.

Be sure to take a note of all booking reference numbers, as you will need these when filling out your Passenger Locator Form prior to return back to the UK (see below)

One to two days before travel

Sort out your final bits of admin (all destinations)

You should now have your negative PCR test result if required. Some destinations will require you to upload proof of your negative Covid result to a portal (such as in Madeira). Others will require you to simply print out your results – either way, it’s worth printing a couple of copies of your negative result form, just in case.

Check there are no other documents you need to fill in, on the FCDO ‘Entry Requirements’ page for your destination. For Greece, for example, you must fill in a Passenger Locator Form no later than 24 hours before you travel.

If your destination accepts vaccine certificates, double-check the NHS App is showing your full vaccination status. You might need to show this on arrival.

Travel day

Take all your documents to the airport (all destinations)

By now you’ll have the tests completed, you will have filled out any pre-travel passenger locator forms, and your bags will be packed. The most cautious travellers (including the writer of this article) will print everything off, just in case your phone dies or technology lets you down in an unexpected way. Whatever you do, make sure the forms are in your hand luggage, not your checked luggage.

Take a test on arrival (some destinations)

For most destinations, this will require no prior organisation and you will be given a test on arrival, though it’s worth double-checking on the relevant FCDO page to make sure.

In some destinations, you may need to go into quarantine and wait for your result (like in Iceland). Although if you are fully vaccinated, some destinations will let you off the hook (again, Iceland). You will already know the rules inside out, of course, having done your research in the week prior to travel.

Participate in any necessary passenger tracing technology or questionnaires

Some countries will require, or encourage, you to sign up for a tracking app. In Iceland, for example, you will be asked to sign up for the Raknig C-19 app on arrival. Make sure your phone is fully charged and has sufficient battery on arrival at your destination in case anything like this is required. Other destinations might ask you to fill in a passenger questionnaire on arrival, detailing your accommodation and return flight information.

Three days before the flight home

Take a test

Remember that test you organised? It’s time to head to that clinic (whether organised independently or via your holiday or flight company). Swab up the nose, and maybe down the throat (hopefully not in that order), then sit back and wait for your negative result within the next 48 hours. This will be a PCR, antigen or rapid flow test as per UK government guidelines.

One to two days before the flight home

Now is the time to fill in your Passenger Locator Form for the UK. You’ll need:

  • your passport details or the travel document you’ll use when you arrive at the UK border
  • your travel details, including times and dates
  • the address where you will stay in the UK (if applicable)
  • booking reference numbers for any COVID-19 tests you must take after arriving in the UK
  • the invoice number for your quarantine hotel booking if you need one

You can do this, here. It is not necessary to print this out – a digital copy will suffice – but if you have access to a printer there’s no harm in doing so. Crucially, you will need the booking references for your tests on arrival back to the UK, so be sure to have these to hand. If anywhere, this form will be checked on arrival in the UK.

Two days after arriving home

For clarity, the day you arrive back is Day 0. So if you land on a Monday, Wednesday is Day 2.

If you are coming in from a green-list country, take a PCR test on or before Day 2. If negative, you can continue to walk free. If positive, you must quarantine for ten days according to Government guidelines.

If you are coming in from an amber-list country, take your PCR test on or before Day 2. If negative, you must remain in quarantine. If positive, you must quarantine for ten days from this date.

Five days after arriving home

For clarity, the day you arrive back is Day 0, so if you land on a Monday, Saturday is Day 5.

If you have returned from an amber destination and have organised a Test to Release PCR test, you can take it today. You will still need to take a final test on Day 8 (see below). If your Test to Release test comes back negative, however, you are free to exit quarantine. If you test positive, you must quarantine for ten days from this point.

Eight days after arriving home

For clarity, the day you arrive back is Day 0, so if you land on a Monday, the following Tuesday is Day 8.

Amber arrivals must take their final test. Once the negative result is in, after Day 10 you can exit quarantine. If positive, you must quarantine for ten days from this point.

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