There are several options for at-home tests that can tell you if you have COVID-19, the illness caused by a coronavirus. They include rapid tests that give you results at home within minutes and home collection kits that are sent to a lab for analysis.
They generally cost $10 and up per test ,and can be bought from drugstores and other retailers. Some local health departments also distribute self-tests, often free of charge. Some tests may be covered under insurance, but others aren’t.
With self-test kits, you swab yourself and get results in a few minutes, similar to a home pregnancy test.
For self-collection kits, you register the test online, take your own swab, and express-ship it to the test company. You get your results either online or by email or text. You could have them as soon as 24 hours after the lab receives your swab, though it may take longer if there's a backlog.
What Rapid At-Home COVID-19 Tests Are Available?
Most of the self-collection kits are molecular (also called PCR) tests, the most accurate type of COVID-19 test. These can be done either on a nasal swab or a sample of your saliva.
The self-test kits that offer quick results are antigen tests, which look for molecules found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. You take a nasal swab for these tests, which tend to be less expensive than the molecular ones. The FDA warns that these swabs are meant to go in your nose only. If you put them in your throat, you could choke or get an incorrect result.
Some self-tests are designed for single use. Others require you take repeat tests within a 2- to 3-day window to confirm your result. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely. If you’re not sure about your results, consult your doctor.
If you’re unsure which home test to get, ask your pharmacist or doctor. Visit the FDA's website for a complete list of approved COVID-19 home test kits.
Some at-home tests that are available include:
BinaxNOW. This antigen test can be purchased online or at drugstores. Using their eMEd site or a phone app, you’ll log in. An expert will guide you through how to test yourself with a nasal swab. You get results in about 15 minutes.
QuickVue. This is also an over-the-counter antigen test. You get two tests for about $25. After you swab, you put the swab in a solution and wait 10 minutes. You then put a paper strip in the solution. It changes color to indicate positive or negative.
On/GO. This antige test can be conducted in just 10 minutes through a mobile app.
Cue. This is a molecular COVID-19 test, which means it detects the virus's genetic material.
ACON Laboratories Flowflex. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for this antigen test in October 2021.
If you have possible COVID-19 symptoms and are unable to get a home test, schedule a PCR test with your doctor, pharmacy, or other testing sites.
How Does an At-Home COVID-19 Test Work?
The COVID-19 at-home or rapid diagnostic tests, also known as COVID-19 lateral flow tests, work similarly to an at-home pregnancy test. Unlike a PCR test, a lateral flow test is designed to analyze different types of bodily fluids in an easy-to-use, disposable kit. Because the tests require little to no training, as long as you follow clear instructions, it can be used outside medical facilities for a quick result or when mass population screening is needed. The result is available typically within 15 to 30 minutes.
Unlike a pregnancy test that checks for hormone levels in urine, the COVID-19 lateral flow test will contain specific antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins to test samples collected through a nasal or throat swab. Once you collect the sample, the swab is inserted into a tube of liquid. Then, you put the liquid onto a small absorbent pad. Just like a positive pregnancy test, if COVID-19 virus particles are present, a colored line will appear.
When to Use a Rapid COVID Test
Regardless of whether you're fully vaccinated, consider a self-test if you:
- Have COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, and chills
- Have close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
- Plan to attend an indoor gathering with people from outside your household, especially if it may include unvaccinated children, older people, or someone who is immunocompromised or otherwise at risk. Take the test right before you go to the event, if possible.
- Are asked to do so by your employer, college, school, or a health care provider
Are At-Home Tests Accurate?
With all COVID-19 tests, you could get a false negative or false positive. This means that you could get a negative result and still have the virus, or a positive result and not actually have COVID-19. Bear in mind that false positives are extremely uncommon.
To get the most accurate result with your at-home test:
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before doing it.
- Disinfect the surface of your testing site before you start.
- Follow the instructions carefully.
- Keep your test properly stored, as the directions state until you’re ready to use it.
- Never use an expired, damaged, discolored, or used test.
- Don't let your test sit by a heater or in the sun.
Without the guidance of a doctor, it can be easy to swab yourself incorrectly, whether orally or nasally. Studies show that self-given tests done without a doctor present were less accurate than those done with a doctor.
If you forget to do preparation steps before your test or swab incorrectly, you could cause the virus, if you have it, to go undetected in the test.
The accuracy of the self-tests also depends on when you test yourself. According to research, it’s best to do the test within 3-5 days after you've been exposed to someone with the virus. If you have symptoms, test immediately.
What Should I Do About My COVID Test Results?
If you test positive. If the test comes back positive, the CDC recommends isolation for 5 days. If you have symptoms and they begin to ease (such as no fever for 24 hours), follow this by wearing a mask for 5 days whenever you're around others.
Also, notify people you've had close contact with that you've tested positive. And tell your doctor about your results. If you develop serious symptoms, get medical attention.
If you think your result may be incorrect, ask your doctor whether you need more testing or schedule a PCR test.
If you test negative. If you have no symptoms and followed the kit directions carefully, you probably don't have COVID-19. There is a small chance you could get a false negative, especially if you tested too early. You may need another test. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor about it.
If the result shows an error or is invalid. It’s rare, but this could happen for several reasons, such as:
- You didn’t follow proper testing instructions.
- You didn’t collect the sample properly.
- Your test is defective
Check the package instructions again or call the manufacturer for guidance. In the meantime, it’s best to schedule a PCR test for the most accurate results.
What Are the Risks of the At-Home COVID Tests?
At-home COVID-19 tests can be a helpful option for those who can’t go to a test site. But there are some important things to know about this form of testing. In addition to false positives, false negatives, and testing mistakes, you should be aware of:
Testing for variants. While at-home tests seem to be able to find variants of COVID-19 as well, researchers still need more information from test manufacturers to make sure. If your at-home test reads positive, it’s best to let your doctor know and get proper treatment as soon as possible, especially if you have a variant that may make you sicker than the original virus.
Proper reporting. Some tests require that you have access to a smartphone or laptop to report your test results. Since it’s up to the user to do so, this can lead to some cases going unreported. It’s important that you let your doctor know if you have a positive test result. Some at-home tests also allow you to send in your results through an app. You should also let your doctor know if you reported a positive test with an app.
FAQ About Paying for Home COVID-19 Tests
The Biden administration requires private insurers and group health plans to cover certain at-home COVID-19 tests purchased after Jan. 15, 2022. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about paying for home tests.
Q. Is my insurer required to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests?
A. If you're insured through an employer, your insurer must pay for eight over-the-counter home tests per month for each person covered under your plan.
For example, if you have a family of four and you’re all on the same plan, your family could get up to 32 free tests per month. You can buy the tests all at once or at different times throughout the month.
Depending on your health plan, your insurer will either cover the costs up front or require you to file a claim to get reimbursed. Call your insurer to find out which method they use.
Q. What do I need to know if my plan pays up front for home tests?
A. Some health plans have a network of “preferred” pharmacies, stores, and online retailers where you can get home tests with no out-of-pocket costs. Ask your insurer if your plan works this way.
You can buy tests from sellers outside your plan’s network, but your insurer won't pay up front and might not cover the full cost. Instead, they’ll reimburse you up to $12 per test (or pay the full cost of the test if it’s under $12). Hold onto your receipt. You’ll need to include it when you submit your reimbursement claim.
Q. What if my plan only covers home tests through a reimbursement program?
A. In that case, you must submit a claim to your insurer to get reimbursed for the test. If your plan doesn't have a network of preferred sellers, they'll reimburse you for the full cost for FDA-approved tests.
Keep your receipt when you buy a test so you can use it when submitting your reimbursement claim. Call your plan and ask how to send in a claim. You won’t need a prescription or a note from your doctor.
Q. Do Medicaid and CHIP programs cover home tests?
A. Yes. Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) must cover at-home COVID tests. Call your state’s Medicaid or CHIP agency to find out the specifics since coverage rules can vary by state.
Q. Does Medicare cover at-home tests?
A. Starting in early spring 2022, if you have original Medicare (also called Medicare Parts A and B) you will be eligible to get eight FDA-approved at-home COVID-19 tests per month for free. The tests will be available through eligible pharmacies, community health centers, and other Medicare-certified health clinics. Check with your plan for more information.
Some Medicare Advantage plans (also called Medicare Part C) may cover and pay for at-home COVID-19 tests. If you have this plan, check to see if it will cover and pay for the at-home COVID-19 tests.
It’s important to note that anyone with Part B Medicare coverage is eligible for the new benefit, whether enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan or not.
With original Medicare, you’ve still got other free testing options. The program pays for COVID-19 diagnostic tests done by a lab if your doctor, pharmacist, or another authorized health worker orders the test for you. You can also get up to one free lab test a year without an order.
Q. Can I get free home tests even if I don’t have insurance?
A. Each household in the U.S. can order four free home COVID tests through the federal site COVIDtests.gov. You can get these free tests whether or not you have health insurance.
You can also get at-home tests for free at some local health departments or Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC).
What Are Some Other COVID-19 Testing Options?
If you don't want to do a test at home, a medical professional may be able to test you depending on your symptoms, risk factors, and whether you’ve been exposed to the virus. Here’s what to do if you think you need to be tested:
- Call your doctor, clinic, or hospital and let them know you think you may have COVID-19 symptoms.
- Tell them if you are older than 60 or have another health condition, like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.
- Be ready to describe your symptoms and if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus.
Your doctor or hospital will tell you what to do next. This could include going to a clinic, going to a drive-through test location, or staying at home and away from other people to avoid spreading the disease.