A polymerase chain reaction test (PCR test) is the most accurate method of testing for Covid in people with symptoms.
If you have symptoms of Covid, you should get a PCR test, which will be sent to a lab for results.
Many countries also require a negative PCR test results as a requirement for entry.
But how long does it take to get your results back from the lab - and are there delays?
What is a PCR test?
A PCR test is performed to detect genetic material from a specific organism, such as a virus, and detects the presence of a virus if you are infected at the time of the test.
A PCR test for Covid is a test used to diagnose people who are currently infected with SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The test involves taking a swab of the inside of your nose and the back of your throat, using a long cotton bud.
PCR tests - which are mainly for people with Covid symptoms - are sent to a lab to be checked, and differ from rapid lateral flow tests, which are only for people who do not have symptoms and give a quick result using a device similar to a pregnancy test.
If you have any of these three Covid symptoms, even if mild, you should get a PCR test as soon as possible:
- a high temperature
- a new, continuous cough
- you’ve lost your sense of smell or taste or it’s changed
You can order an NHS PCR test kit to be sent to your home or book an appointment at a walk-in or drive-through test site.
If you do the test at a test site, they will send the swab to the lab.
If you do the test at home, you must do the following before you do the test:
If you're posting a home test kit, you should only post it in a Royal Mail priority postbox. Do not take it to a Post Office or post it in a non-priority postbox.
However, you cannot use this service to book tests for travel. Private PCR tests must instead be taken for those who need tests for travel purposes.
If you are taking a PCR test for travel then a number of different companies offer these on a private basis either at a centre or at home.
If you are taking the test at home you will need to check with each company to see how to send the test back or if they offer a courier service.
How long do PCR results take?
Most people get their NHS PCR result the next day, but it may take up to three days.
You will usually get a text or email with your result when it's ready. If you use the NHS Covid-19 app, you may also get your result in the app.
However, recently there have been reports of Covid test results taking up to five days to come back, due to record levels of demand as cases of the Omicron Covid variant soar in the UK.
If you do not get your results by day six, then call 119. Calls to 119 are free from a landline or mobile phone. Lines are open from 7am to 11pm.
If you are taking a private PCR test then costs vary and although most results are generally returned within 48-72 hours from the time the sample is received by the lab, this cannot always be guaranteed.
Before you travel, check foreign travel advice to find out whether the country or territory you want to go to will allow people from the UK to enter, and if you will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to enter, or quarantine when you arrive.
Most countries that are asking for proof of a negative PCR test on arrival from the UK are requiring this to be taken within a 72-hour period, so you should also check this requirement before travelling to your destination.