Testing for travel

T2 at London Heathrow

Setting out my notes from the recent trip from the US to Scotland, prompted by a request from someone else who was also making that journey.  

https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-international-travel-quarantine/pages/red-amber-and-green-list-countries/  is the starting point.  The US is an ‘amber country’ from the point of view of the UK. 

Assuming you have been fully vaccinated, you need the US CDC card, and proof of your US address. 

Within 3 days of  travel, you need to take a PCR test, or an antigen test which meets “standards of ≥97% specificity and ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml”  . Since I was on an overnight flight, and most of the test places I talked to sent out their tests to an external lab, I chose to have a PCR  test done at  https://covidclinic.org/palo-alto-ca/ which offered a ‘results in an hour’ option, rather than depend on people offering no better than 48 hours for results delivery. I chose to print the result so as to have it as part of my documentation at the airport. 

Within  48 hours before  arrival in the UK you need to complete a passenger locator form. This includes the flight number and arrival time, and won’t let you finish the form until 48 hours before.

What you can do in advance is book and pay for the required PCR test that is sent by post to the address where you are going to be staying; that booking produces a reference number for the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) . The UK  form applies for entry to Scotland https://www.gov.uk/provide-journey-contact-details-before-travel-uk . I printed the PLF – the airline checks it, and it is checked again at the UK border.

The PCR test comes from the recommended supplier .. you don’t have to pick one.  This is self-testing, where you run the swab then put it in the tube that comes with the kit, and put the whole thing in a little cardboard folded up box, which goes into a ‘priority postbox’ to be sent to a lab. 

It is possible to pick up, from a pharmacy, lateral flow tests which the  National Health Service makes available free.  These are not an alternative to the required PCR test, but are useful for peace of mind and to self check before the test you have to take before you leave the UK again. 

Travel to the US Test taken within 3 days of travel.

It turns out that an antigen test, although not a self administered test, is sufficient. Newington Pharmacy in Edinburgh had a turn round time of 15 minutes, given an advance booking, for giving me the printed result. A picture of that result, uploaded to the airline check in process, meant I could get a printed boarding pass, and so change terminals airside in Heathrow. 


A test result must be in the form of written documentation (paper or electronic copy). The documentation must include:

Type of test (indicating it is a NAAT or antigen test)

Entity issuing the result (e.g. laboratory, healthcare entity, or telehealth service)

Specimen collection date. A negative test result must show the specimen was collected within the 3 days before the flight. A positive test result for documentation of recovery from COVID-19 must show the specimen was collected within the 3 months before the flight.

Information that identifies the person (full name plus at least one other identifier such as date of birth or passport number)

Test Result

The least efficient part of the whole travel process was return immigration at San Francisco. If I’d know ahead of time about the Mobile Passport Control app, it would have saved an hour of standing in line. https://www.cbp.gov/travel/us-citizens/mobile-passport-control “Travelers using MPC will be directed to a specific processing lane for a streamlined entry process.” This did happen. 

The above is accurate at 09 August 2021. When I travelled in July there was a requirement for 10 days of isolation in Scotland, which I dutifully completed. Since then that requirement no longer applies if you have been fully vaccinated. Expect the rules to change again.

15 August – adding a link to a broad review of worldwide travel attitudes from governments from The Economist, and quoting the most pertinent section on testing for travel https://www.economist.com/international/2021/08/14/travel-chaos-will-last-well-beyond-summer

“Many of the safety measures that accompany partial reopening are flawed. Asking someone to isolate at home cuts their contact with the outside world by 75%, compared with 90% for hotel quarantines, reports the Lancet. Another study suggests that a costly polymerase-chain-reaction (pcr) test before a flight is worse than a cheaper alternative. It is more accurate than an antigen test, but slower. So travelers have more time to get infected between clinic and boarding gate. A negative antigen test taken on the day of a trip, as many EU states accept, reduces the number of infected people who make it over a border to 24% of levels without any testing compared with 33% for a pcr test taken two days before a flight.”