I’m going home for Christmas – how do I get a Covid test in the UK?

Guide for travellers ordering a coronavirus test ahead of the festive season

A student from the University of St. Andrews takes a swab for a lateral-flow test in a mass COVID-19 testing centre, set up in the University's sports hall in St. Andrews, eastern Scotland on November 27, 2020, to determine if they are able to travel home for the Christmas break.  / AFP / Andy Buchanan
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Britons have been granted a temporary reprieve from coronavirus restrictions over Christmas.

Many are eager to see family and friends after enduring nearly a month of lockdown and other harsh restrictions across the country.

However, as travel is permitted, many of those returning home have asked how they can take a coronavirus test to help stop the disease from spreading. Those questions are answered here.

Can I get a free test?

You should only order a free NHS test if you are displaying symptoms of coronavirus or have been asked to by your council.

The main symptoms include a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, and a loss of, or change in, your sense of smell or taste.

If you are displaying symptoms, the government advises you to get tested as soon as possible. You can visit your nearest testing centre or order a home kit.

What if I don’t have symptoms?

People who are not showing symptoms can order a private test. A range of health providers offer the coronavirus tests for a fee. Boots, the UK’s largest pharmacy, offers the test for £120 ($160) with results made available within 48 hours.

What kind of coronavirus test will I get?

People who order a private coronavirus test are most likely to receive a PCR (lab-based) test, with results available between 24 and 48 hours after a swab.

Some healthcare providers offer lateral flow rapid Covid swabs, which can deliver a result in less than an hour, but these are not widely available.

A member of the community swabbing team carries out a doorstep COVID-19 test following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Chadderton, Britain, October 1, 2020. Picture taken October 1, 2020.   To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN-NEWWAVE  REUTERS/Phil Noble
A member of the community swabbing team carries out a doorstep COVID-19 test following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Chadderton. Reuters

However, the government has made rapid coronavirus testing available to all cities placed in Tier 3, including Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Bristol.

Anyone in a Tier 3 area – whether displaying symptoms or not – is eligible for a Covid-19 test. England returns to its tier system on December 2.

When should you get tested?

People returning home should calculate the correct time to take a test.

If planned too early, there is more time to catch the virus before meeting friends and family. Plan it too late, and there is the risk of results coming back after you head off, a potential risk if you happen to test positive.

Lab-based tests, the most common, take between 24 and 48 hours to return a result.