When is a COVID-19 Test Right for You?

More options make it easier than ever to get tested

COVID-19 testing is one of the best tools we have for keeping our communities safe during the pandemic.

New government programs are giving us access to at-home tests shipped right to us. Testing is becoming easier and more accessible to people in and outside of their home.

With more testing options, you might be wondering when the best time is to get tested for COVID-19. We’re summing up the basics about when to test, when to isolate, and other important considerations as at-home testing access increases in Washington.

When should I test?

These are the times you should get tested, to help keep you and your community safe:

  • When you feel sick. COVID-19 has a wide range of symptoms, so if you’re not feeling well, it’s best to get tested as soon as possible.
  • When you have recovered from feeling sick. A negative COVID-19 test may be a requirement to return to your workplace or school campuses even if symptoms are gone.
  • When you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Get tested immediately if you’re showing symptoms. If you’re not showing symptoms, wait five days until after the exposure and then test.
  • When you’re headed out on the town. Businesses and event spaces (including places within Washington) may also have testing or vaccination requirements. That means you might need to show a negative test before entering a business (like a restaurant) or attending an event (like a concert). Look online or call ahead of time if you have questions.
  • When you’re traveling. International travelers (regardless of vaccination status) over the age of two will need to test negative for COVID-19 within a day of boarding a flight to the United States. Other countries may have their own testing requirements. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends unvaccinated individuals test before and after travel within the U.S. It’s best to check whether your airline requires any testing or vaccination before travel.
  • When you need extra peace of mind. You may choose to test as an extra safety measure before getting together with others. This is especially important before you gather with older people, people who are at risk for severe disease, or people who may not be vaccinated.

Which test is best to take?

The best test is the one that’s available to you. That means if you have an at-home test on hand, use that. If you see an available appointment for a testing site, schedule it. One exception is when a specific test is required for your situation (like for traveling or returning to work).

The two most common tests that can tell you if you currently have COVID-19 are:

  • PCR tests (also known as molecular tests)
  • Rapid tests (these are tests that give results within an hour). Rapid tests are sometimes also called “at-home tests.”

Are all tests accurate?

All tests can be used to assess if someone currently has COVID-19. It is rare for someone to get a positive test result if they are not infected (called a false positive).

False negatives (getting a negative result when someone is infected) are more common with rapid tests than with PCR tests — especially at the beginning of an infection. That’s why testing kits will include two tests. Follow the instructions on the box for when to space out the tests for accurate results. You may also choose to get a different type of test, like a PCR test from a testing site or your health care provider.

Should I quarantine or isolate before I test and as I wait for my results?

Knowing when to quarantine or isolate can be a little confusing, so keep these guidelines in mind:

  • If you feel sick. Stay home and isolate, away from others, including people you live with. This goes for all people regardless of vaccination status.
  • If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. You may need to quarantine, depending on your vaccination status and if you have symptoms. Check the latest CDC guidance to find out what you should do based on your situation.
  • If you’re testing before going to a gathering or event. You do not need to quarantine or isolate while you’re waiting for results. However, if you’ve had an exposure or are showing any symptoms, skip the gathering.
  • If you’re traveling. You may need to quarantine while you’re waiting for test results before or after travel, depending on your vaccination status. The CDC recommends a quarantine period for unvaccinated individuals.

How much do tests cost?

✔️ There are now free at-home tests available through the federal and state government.

  • You can order four free tests for your household through the federal government at this site.
  • If you live in Washington, you can also place an order through Say YES! COVID Test (while supplies last). Inventory is changing quickly, so be sure to check back regularly for available tests.

✔️Additional cost-free options:

  • You can get tested at no cost at county or state test sites. Many tests, particularly for people experiencing symptoms, can be billed to insurance or are paid for by the Department of Health.
  • If you have health insurance, insurance providers will now directly cover, or pay you back for, up to eight at-⁠home tests per month, for each person on your plan. Don’t have insurance? You will be able to order free at-home tests from the federal government or get a test from a local community health center.

✔️ You can also buy an at-home test at local or online retailers and pharmacies. You don’t need insurance or a prescription.

How do I take an at-home COVID-19 test?

It’s important to follow the instructions inside the kit for the most accurate results. Several brands also offer video instructions. For more helpful information, check out the CDC’s tips for at-home testing.

What should I do with my at-home COVID-19 test results?

A positive test result means that you likely have a current infection, and you should isolate and inform close contacts.

  • Currently, there are two ways to report your positive at-home test result:
  • Washington’s COVID-19 hotline — Call 1–800–525–0127 to report your result and access available Care Connect resources.
  • WA Notify — If you already use WA Notify, you can access a new feature that allows users to enter a positive test result on the app, which will anonymously alert other WA Notify users of a potential exposure. The advantage of using this app is that it alerts strangers you have been near that they may have been exposed too (without identifying who may have exposed them).

A negative test result means that you may not be infected — though it’s not completely certain. If you get a negative test result, you may need to test again within a few days to make sure you are not infected. Follow the instructions in the testing kit to learn if and when you should take another test.

Should I stock up on tests?

It’s a good idea to have a few tests on hand. Order tests as they are available through government websites. If you’re out shopping and see tests available, purchase a few if you can. But be a good neighbor and use your best judgement. Storing up a large number of tests means blocking access for others who may be in need. You’d also be taking the risk that tests could expire before you are able to use them.

More Information

This blog is accurate as of the date of posting. Information changes rapidly, so check the state’s COVID-19 website for the most up-to-date info at coronavirus.wa.gov. You can also sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles.

The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to everyone 5 and older. For more information about the vaccine, visit CovidVaccineWA.org and use the vaccine locator tool to find an appointment. The COVID-19 vaccine is provided at no cost to you.

WA Notify can alert you if you’ve been near another user who tested positive for COVID-19. Add WA Notify to your phone today: WANotify.org

Find answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington state at our website. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press #. The line is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.