My Experience Getting COVID-19 Tested to Return to US

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covid testing returning to us

COVID Testing Returning to the U.S.

Effective January 26, 2021, COVID testing returning to the US became a requirement for international travel. Many other countries already require COVID testing for entry, so this now means that in the majority of cases, you’ll need to be tested before leaving and before returning. This entry requirement applies to U.S. citizens along with foreigners entering America.

The COVID testing requirement for returning to the U.S. threw a bit of a wrench into my plans to spend a week in Colombia. I’d already booked the tickets with the assumption that I would need to be tested within 96 hours of flight departure for Colombia. Now I needed to find a place to be tested in Colombia within three days of returning to the U.S.

COVID Testing Requirement for U.S. Entry

Here are the exact COVID testing requirements for air travelers entering the U.S. per the State Department and CDC:

  • All air passengers two years of age and over entering the United States (including U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents) to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three (3) calendar days of departure​, or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days. Airlines must confirm the negative test result or proof of recent recovery for all passengers prior to boarding. ​Airlines must deny boarding of passengers who do not provide documentation of a negative test or recovery.
  • Humanitarian exemptions to this order will be granted on an extremely limited basis and will only be considered when the country of departure lacks adequate SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity and cannot meet the requirements to provide a negative viral COVID-19 test within three (3) calendar days of departure.
    • The testing waiver comes with a bunch of documentation requirements and must meet two conditions: (a) Emergency travel is required to preserve health and safety (e.g. medical evacuations) and (b) Predeparture testing cannot be accessed or completed before travel.
  • There are no waivers available through this process for individuals who test positive for COVID-19. 

It makes sense that if you test positive, you will not be allowed on a plane or entry into the U.S. Honestly, these requirements aren’t all that different than other countries. The main hurdle is ensuring you can find a place to be tested to be able to come home.

Finding a COVID-19 Testing Location in Cartagena

I’d already nailed down my plan to obtain a test to enter Colombia. But getting tested prior to returning to the U.S. was not something I’d planned. This requirement went into effect just four days before my trip. This goes to show how quickly travel requirements can change, which is honestly the most nerve-wracking part of travel right now, in my opinion. This caused me more consternation than the potential to contract COVID-19. But I had a few days to figure things out.

I emailed the Hyatt Regency Cartagena to see if they knew of a testing location. Several Hyatt resorts are offering complimentary COVID-19 testing; however, the Hyatt Regency Cartagena does not participate in this program. The manager confirmed this in the email response.

The hotel manager did provide excellent information regarding COVID testing for returning to U.S., though. She provided names, phone numbers, and addresses of three different clinics that offer COVID-19 testing. At least two of them guaranteed results within the necessary timeframe.

COVID-19 Testing Experience in Bocagrande

The most convenient COVID-19 testing clinic to the Hyatt in Cartagena is located less than 10 minutes from the hotel by taxi. I did not need to make an appointment, and I had the hotel front desk call to make sure I could just walk in. The clinic is open normal business hours, except for the 12:00-13:00 hour for lunch.

The test cost 300,000 Colombian pesos (~$85 USD). I got tested Thursday morning, and they guaranteed the results before noon on Saturday. As I had a Saturday afternoon flight, this was cutting it a bit close, but the results arrived as promised. The test itself is uncomfortable, as they stick the stupid swab far into your nasal cavity, but otherwise easy. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.

Obviously, I tested negative. The hotel front desk staff printed the results for me to provide to American Airlines. I joked with him that I would be staying just a bit more than 3 days had they been positive.

Providing Documentation to Fly Home

The need for COVID testing returning to the US means that everything needs to be checked and rechecked by the airline. My passport and COVID-19 test were checked by staff to simply let me into the Cartagena Airport. Then these were checked again by the staff at the American Airlines counter. For Colombia in particular, you need to also fill out their Check-Mig form again to depart the country. I found myself doing this at the airport once more.

I received an email from American to download the VeriFly digital health passport app. This is something I did not do prior to travel, so I cannot report on that experience.

I had my COVID test paper ready to pass through U.S. immigration, but this wasn’t requested. I did get questioned far more than normal by an immigration officer, even after using Global Entry. He was curious why I was in Colombia, if I knew anyone there, and was surprised I was a solo tourist. He figured that everything is closed (not at all true).

Final Thoughts

I know it may seem daunting to plan in COVID testing for returning to the U.S. ahead of your trip, but it wasn’t all that difficult a hurdle for me. The testing before the trip and before returning were my first times being tested for COVID-19. Testing certainly adds a cost to any trip, and things would add up quickly for multiple people. But it’s not an impossible hurdle, and I had no real issues traveling abroad.

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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23 COMMENTS

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23 COMMENTS

  1. You said they gave you theee locations for Covid test can you share where you got your test? I don’t see anywhere you mentioning the address or name of the place

  2. Not traveling outside the US until all that testing crap is over. If it becomes a mandatory thing to fly, will stick to travel the USA, plenty to see here.

  3. I’m getting my covid test tomorrow so that I can leave Uruguay. It cost me $110 a piece, and it’s my daughter and I, so it’s not fun when I can get a spit test for free in Minnesota. I’m also getting nervous in case we get a positive. How do you even prove you’ve recovered? I don’t want to spend $ 220 a week on tests. You start to wonder how much worth is traveling abroad these days. I’m so anxious I can’t fall asleep. I guess il’ll keep reading meself and pints blogs so that I can plan for cheap trips when all this is over. Any card that covers covid tests?

    • I don’t think there are any cards that cover COVID tests. That would be a unique benefit.

      Gotta go with the flow and try to let the stress go. I convinced myself I’d be just fine if I couldn’t enter Colombia, and slept well the night before.

    • Proof of recovery is a note from a health care provider after your have done the mandatory quarantine (either 10 or 14 days for most places) and are free of any symptoms. Whether you had symptoms or not doesn’t change/affect this. It’s just the way to get through the period where you could be contagious. No follow up test should be taken (per the CDC) as results will most likely come back positive again. After a confirmed positive test, you have a 90 day exemption. So just keep that proof for future return flights. That was my plan, albeit the test result and note from my doctor came here in the states after I tested and ‘recovered’ at home. To reduce any anxiety, I would recommend to anyone to take a test 2 weeks before departure. If you are positive, then you can safely isolate and get your recovery note before departing. Then one less thing to worry about while abroad.

    • Nope. Would have had to just wing it. But I’m comfortable with “non-planning” things like this and figure I’ll be resourceful enough to figure it out in the moment.

  4. If my flight back to the USA is on Tuesday at 5 PM, can I do the test on Saturday evening? Or must it be on Sunday? Thanks! – Patrick

  5. I’m sure the extra questioning had more to do with you your itinerary: Solo male traveler coming from Colombia.

  6. You guys do realize that you can have your tests done and the results emailed to you in a couple minutes for $5, right? Wasting time on nonsense on one’s vacation seems silly.

  7. I got a rapid antigen test in Belize yesterday at the airport for $75. What’s funny is they charge $50 on entry to the airport. Since we were just going for 3 nights I thought we could do the test on the way in and use those results for the entry and exit but the test on the way in, they don’t provide the results unless your positive.

    • Bummer. Would have been nice to use them for both legs! I didn’t consider the antigen test, but I did notice it was cheaper. My guess is that if you test *negative* for antigens, you would have to still do the PCR? Need to research that option more, and how it can apply.

    • Same. Not sure how it works. Might try to use it on a future trip, although I’m not keen on the digital health passport idea.

  8. I got a rapid test as soon as I landed I Guadalajara for $25 the PCR was more expensive for a FRI-MON trip. Took about 30 minutes for the results . The problem was the employees were counting Friday as the first day and Monday would be considered the 4th day by their math . The CDC site explained this isn’t the case. Having gone to Hawaii albeit thurs is 72 hours not 3 full days I took the test on Monday die a Thursday flight as a reference. I was correct as Monday I flew back from Guadalajara with no issues .

    • I’d much rather have it be the 72-hour window, which is what I initially thoughts it was. Easier to determine. Three calendar days can be ambiguous.

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