Whether you have symptoms, were exposed, or just need to be cleared for an event, you are most likely among the millions of people who have questions about COVID-19 testing.
Where do you get the COVID-19 test done, how fast are the results, and how much do they cost?
While some tests are expensive, with no real limitation on how much could be charged, at this point, it’s easy to get low-cost or free testing.
This article will discuss the different types of COVID tests, how much those tests cost, and the difference between a PCR and a rapid test.
Lastly, we will talk about how to order free COVID tests and how you can be reimbursed for COVID tests.
What is a COVID Test?
There are a few different methods to test for the COVID-19 virus.
The molecular and antigen methods test for a current infection of COVID-19, while the antibody test shows if you were previously infected.
Molecular test: This test is done by using a swab to collect a sample from the mucus membranes of your sinuses or the back of your throat. The swab is then sent for testing to see if any genetic material is present from the COVID-19 virus. These tests can be called:
- Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test
- Nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT)
- Reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP)
Antigen test: This test also involves a nose swab that looks for antigens (protein molecules that stimulate an immune response) from the virus. Antigens stimulate an immune response by inducing the production of protective proteins called antibodies. There are antibodies in this test that bind to the antigens on the virus, causing a positive result. If someone does not have COVID-19, the virus antigen will be absent, and the antibodies won’t bind to anything leading to a negative result. This test is also referred to as the rapid test.
Antibody test: Also called serology test, the antibody test doesn’t look for a current infection but rather a previous infection. The test is done by taking a blood sample either from the arm or a finger prick. Lab scientists will then look at the blood to determine if there are antibodies present for the COVID-19 virus. This is the evidence that your body was previously exposed and fought the virus, whether from active infection or immunity from vaccination.
At-home tests: You have a few options when it comes to tests you can take at home. There are molecular tests, antigen tests, and even antibody tests. There are two different ways of running this kind of COVID-test:
- Home collection: With this method, you collect the sample yourself then send it to a lab for testing. The lab will then call you with your results.
- At-home tests: This method allows you to collect your sample and do the testing all in your home with the provided kit.
Cost of a COVID Test
There are locations all over the country that offer testing at no cost to you.
Free at-home tests are also available for pick up at locations or to order through the mail. More information about this is below.
The PCR test falls under the FFCRA, meaning you can get it done for free.
Turnaround time can be as fast as 15 minutes, or if it needs to be sent to a lab, results could take one to three days.
This type of test has been considered the “gold standard,” getting accurate results 95.1% of the time, according to the 2021 Cochrane Review.
The actual cost is estimated to be between $75-$100 per test.
Like the PCR test, the rapid test is currently free under the FFCRA. Results can be ready within 15 to 30 minutes. This test is not as accurate as the molecular test.
The same 2021 Cochrane Review found that in confirmed cases, the antigen test correctly diagnosed 78% of people who had symptoms but only 58% of those with no symptoms.
The actual cost is estimated to be about $5-$50 per test.
Antibody tests look for the previous infection of COVID-19.
These tests also fall under the FFCRA and can be free of charge. Results can be out the same day or one to three days if sent out to a lab.
A different 2021 Cochrane Review shows that the test is more accurate after time has passed since you were symptomatic.
Three weeks after symptoms, the test was 90% accurate. The actual cost is somewhere between $30-$50.
At-home tests are available for purchase at many retailers and pharmacies around the country. There are also a few ways to get your at-home test for free.
The current administration has strongly encouraged health plans to set up a network of convenient locations where people with private health coverage will be able to order online or walk in and pick up a test for free.
You can call your insurance plan and find out if they have locations set up or if you will need to submit a claim for reimbursement of purchasing a test.
Government By Mail
Every home in the U.S. is eligible for four free at-home covid tests, which will be sent to them via the U.S. Postal Service.
The tests available by mail are rapid antigen tests, not PCR tests. You can take the test anywhere and have your results within 30 minutes with no lab drop-off required.
PCR vs Rapid COVID Test
The PCR test has been called the “gold standard” test for COVID-19 because of its better accuracy rates.
It detects RNA (genetic material) of the virus and can detect COVID-19 even in asymptomatic people.
It takes longer than the rapid test to get results, typically two to three days.
On the other hand, the rapid test (or antigen test) detects protein fragments specific to the COVID-19 virus. While the accuracy of this test is not as good as the PCR test, the turnaround time is much faster at only 15 minutes.
How to Order Free COVID Tests
There are two ways you can order your free COVID tests – Online, or if you prefer by phone, you can order your kits by calling 1-800-232-0233.
After ordering, your free COVID-19 test kits will be mailed through the U.S. Postal Service within seven to twelve days.
The tests are completely free, and you will not be charged a shipping cost.
You will not be required to give any credit card or bank information. If anyone asks you for that information, they are scammers.
Reimbursement for COVID Tests
If your insurance plan did not set up a network of locations where you can pick up a test for free, you can purchase an at-home test at any location, then send your receipt to your insurance company and submit a claim for reimbursement.
You will be reimbursed for the cost of the test.
If your insurance plan did set up a network of stores, pharmacies, and online retailers where you can buy a test for free, you can still buy a COVID-19 at-home test at another location and then submit it for reimbursement.
You will be reimbursed up to $12 for the test for up to eight tests a month.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Antibody Tests for Identification of Current and Passed Infection of SARS-CoV-2. (2020).
Antigen Tests. (n.d.).
Clinical Ordering Practices of the SARS-CoV-2 Antibody test at a Large Academic Medical Center. (2020).
Frequently Asked Questions on Testing Coverage in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. (n.d.).
Molecular Tests. (n.d.).
Overview of Testing for SARS-CoV-2, the Virus that Causes COVID-19. (2022).
Rapid, Point-of-Care Antigen and Molecular-Based Tests for Diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 Infection. (2021).
Serology Tests. (n.d.).