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How to shop for FDA-authorized at-home Covid test kits

Medical experts break down the different at-home Covid testing methods and how reliable they are, as well as where to find FDA-authorized options.
Senior woman using an nasal swab for covid 19 detection, self testing.
There are two at-home Covid testing methods: home collection and home testing.Basilico Studio Stock / Getty Images

While people had to wait in line for hours to get tested for Covid when the pandemic first began, companies are now selling kits to diagnose infection at home, many of which you can buy online. And as Americans become increasingly concerned about Covid variants, access to tests may be on your mind. At-home testing methods are not always entirely accurate, but if you are symptomatic, they can help you determine whether what you’re experiencing is actually Covid.

SKIP AHEAD Home collection tests | Home testing kits | How to get free at-home Covid tests

We spoke to experts about different at-home Covid testing methods and how they work, as well as who should use them. We also rounded up FDA-authorized test kits you can use at home and purchase across retailers. Experts emphasized that at-home testing is not a substitute for mask-wearing or getting vaccinated. And regardless of your vaccination status, no one should exempt themselves from getting tested for Covid if they’re experiencing compatible symptoms.

At-home Covid testing, simplified

As it did with KN95 masks and Covid vaccines, the Food and Drug Administration issued Emergency Use Authorization in 2020 to certain diagnostic tests, listing them online. Unlike the EUAs for KN95 masks, these are still in effect. There are two methods of at-home testing:

  • Home collection tests: Samples are collected at home and sent to a lab for analysis — you typically find out the results in a few days.
  • At-home testing: Samples are collected at home and you perform the test — you get results in a few minutes.

Home collection tests generally produce more accurate results than at-home testing kits. Home collection kits prompt you to collect a sample and mail that sample to a lab — the lab performs a PCR test and then you get your results a day or two later. But even with home collection tests, you need to account for human error — because you are collecting the sample instead of a trained professional, there’s always the possibility of collecting a poor sample, which can impact your result.

The benefit of at-home Covid testing methods is that they allow people to get tested more frequently, which could lead to catching more infections and, in turn, decrease spread, noted Dr. Cole Beeler, director of symptomatic testing for Indiana University’s Covid Medical Response Team and an assistant professor at the IU School of Medicine. But again, there’s danger in deriving a false sense of security from at-home testing methods as they’re generally less sensitive than tests performed by professionals in medical offices.

“These tests need to be used judiciously,” Beeler said. “If you had a high-risk exposure and/or are symptomatic and you have a negative test, it still may be worthwhile to get a formal test done in a hospital lab.”

How accurate are at-home Covid test kits?

If you want to know whether you’re actively infected with Covid, you’ll need to get a diagnostic test. Diagnostic Covid tests fall into two buckets: molecular tests and antigen tests. The tests detect different parts of the Covid virus and vary in sensitivity.

  • Molecular tests are more sensitive, meaning they require a lower amount of virus in a sample to detect a positive result.
  • Antigen tests are less sensitive, meaning they require a higher amount of virus in a sample to detect a positive result.

Most at-home Covid tests are antigen tests. However, a few molecular at-home testing kits were issued FDA EUAs. It’s important to note that these molecular at-home testing kits are not PCR tests — they perform a different type of molecular test that’s less sensitive, which means they require a higher amount of the virus in a sample to detect it. Be aware that many at-home molecular testing kits say that they are able to deliver PCR-quality results, even though a PCR-quality test is not equivalent to a PCR test, said Omai Garner, PhD, chief of clinical microbiology for UCLA Health.

The best diagnostic test is the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, a type of molecular test, Garner said. But no PCR test is approved for at-home testing, meaning “the most accurate Covid test cannot be done entirely at home,” he said. If you test too early at home, there may only be low levels of the virus present in the sample, which could lead to an inaccurate result.

So are at-home testing methods reliable? The answer is complicated and often comes down to who is being tested, when the test takes place and what type of test is being used, explained Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

“If you’re symptomatic and you’re testing because you don’t want to go to work sick, at-home tests are going to be very helpful,” she said. “But if you’re feeling fine, you may need to be tested much more frequently than just today to say you can go on that trip next week.”

Testing for Covid at home? Here’s how to start.

The two testing methods — at-home tests and at-home collection kits — are similar in that they can diagnose infection and are performed on either nose or throat swabs. From there, the methods differ, and experts said those differences determine how reliable tests are and how you should use them.

FDA-authorized home collection kits

While there are no approved PCR tests for at-home testing, you can collect a sample at home for a PCR test and mail that sample to a lab. When the lab receives the sample, experts run tests on it and you receive your results a few days later.

“These home collection kits have better accuracy than home testing kits,” Garner said. “The reason for that is because the gold standard PCR test is run on the sample, and the people running the test are professionals.”

Below are some of the most widely available Covid home collection tests on the FDA-authorized list. They all come with prepaid return labels and professionals perform PCR tests on your samples when they arrive at the labs.

EmpowerDX At-Home COVID-19 Nasal PCR Test

  • Result time: 48 hours of your kit arriving to the lab
  • Age range: 3 years old and above
  • Sample type: Nasal

Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit

  • Result time: 24 to 48 hours of the sample arriving at the lab
  • Age range: 18 years old and above
  • Sample type: Nasal

Pixel by Labcorp COVID-19 PCR Test Home Collection Kit

  • Result time: 24 to 48 hours after the sample arrives at the lab
  • Age range: 2 years old and above
  • Sample type: Nasal

Picture by Fulgent Genetics COVID-19 Test

  • Result time: Within 48 hours of the sample arriving to the lab
  • Age range: 4 years old and above
  • Sample type: Nasal

Let’s Get Checked COVID-19 Test

  • Result time: Within 24 to 72 hours of the sample arriving to the lab
  • Age range: 2 years old and above
  • Sample type: Nasal

Vitagene COVID-19 Saliva Test Kit

  • Result time: Within 72 hours of the sample arriving to the lab
  • Age range: 4 years old and above
  • Sample type: Saliva

DxTerity COVID-19 Saliva At-Home Collection Kit

  • Result time: 24 to 72 hours of the sample arriving at the lab
  • Age range: No age restrictions, according to the brand
  • Sample type: Saliva

FDA-authorized home testing kits

Like with home collection kits, at-home testing kits require you to take a sample — but instead of mailing that sample to a lab, you test it at home. This allows you to receive a result within minutes, which is why these tests are sometimes called “rapid tests.”

Some home testing kits say they can screen asymptomatic individuals for Covid. However, Garner said he “fundamentally disagrees with [this]” because you cannot perform a PCR test — the most accurate Covid test — entirely at home. Thus, Garner does not think home testing kits are appropriate for asymptomatic testing, and all the experts we interviewed agreed.

As for symptomatic testing, Garner said home tests perform relatively well — there is typically a higher amount of virus present in the body, he explained, reaching a threshold home tests can cover.

Nachman noted that most at-home test kits come with two or more tests and recommended that you perform multiple tests a few days apart — this is called serial testing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The FDA recommends repeat (serial) testing following a negative result from an at-home antigen test whether or not you have symptoms. This is because on the first day you perform an at-home test, it might not be able to detect low levels of the virus and you may get a false negative, even if you’re symptomatic.

Below are some of the most widely available Covid home testing kits on the FDA-authorized list. They all require you to collect a nasal swab and perform the test yourself using provided materials.

BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test

  • Result time: 15 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

This kit comes with two tests — the brand says you should test yourself twice within three days, making sure tests are done at least 36 hours apart. It provides the materials needed to perform nasal swabs as well as the actual test, which is done using test cards and processing fluid.

Ellume COVID-19 Antigen Test Kit

  • Result time: 15 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

Ellume’s test kit comes with a Bluetooth-enabled analyzer that requires smartphone connection through the companion app to administer and receive results. The kit provides you with the materials needed to perform one test using a nasal swab sample.

Quidel QuickVue At-Home COVID-19 Antigen Test Kit

  • Result time: 10 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

This kit is intended for you to test twice over two to three days with 24 to 36 hours between each test. You collect a nasal swab sample and dip it into a solution tube with a test strip to perform the test.

On/Go COVID-19 Antigen Self-Test

  • Result time: 10 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

On/Go’s kit comes with two tests so you can test twice over two or three days with 24 to 48 hours between them, the brand says. There is a QR code on the box you can scan to download a companion app, which guides you through the testing process and allows you to log your test results. The test comes with materials needed to perform a nasal swab and the actual test, which is done using test cards and processing fluid.

iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test

  • Result time: 15 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

iHealth’s kit comes with two kits — the brand says it’s best to test twice over three days with 24 to 48 hours between them. You perform the test using a nasal swab you collect, a test card and processing fluid. iHealth also offers an app you can download to log your results.

FlowFlex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test

  • Result time: 15 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

FlowFlex’s home testing kit only comes with one test, so in order to perform serial testing, you’ll have to purchase multiple packs. The kit comes with materials needed to perform a nasal swab and the actual test, which is done using a test card and processing fluid.

Cue COVID-19 Tests and Reader

  • Result time: About 20 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

To use Cue’s COVID-19 test kit, you need tests to collect and prepare your sample, as well as a reusable Cue Reader, which processes the sample. You also need to download the Cue Health App, which is required to run Covid tests — the app walks you through performing the test and is where you’ll get your results. The brand does not explicitly mention serial testing directions, but experts recommend doing so if you get a negative result. You can purchase additional tests separately to use with the reusable reader.

Detect COVID-19 Starter Kit

  • Result time: About 55 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

Detect’s COVID-19 Starter Kit comes with a reusable Detect Hub, which processes Covid tests, and one single-use test, which is what you use to collect and prepare your nasal swab. The Detect App is required to run Covid tests and provides instructions to guide you through performing the test. For serial testing, the brand recommends performing a second Covid test within 24 to 48 hours of your first. However, since the Starter Kit only comes with one single-use test, you’ll have to purchase additional tests to do so.

Lucira Check It COVID-19 Test Kit

  • Result time: Up to 30 minutes
  • Age range: 2 years old and above

All parts of the Lucira Check It COVID-19 Test Kit are single-use items — you cannot, for example, reuse the Lucira test unit like you can reuse the Cue Reader or Detect Hub. This means for every test you perform, you have to purchase an entirely new kit since each only comes with enough materials to perform one test. Each kit comes with two AA batteries and a test unit to perform the test, as well as a sample vial and swab to collect and prepare the sample. The brand does not explicitly mention serial testing directions, but experts recommend doing so if you get a negative result.

Who can use at-home Covid tests?

According to the CDC, “self-tests can be used by anyone who is symptomatic regardless of their vaccination status,” and “unvaccinated persons with no Covid symptoms can also use self-tests, especially if they were potentially exposed to someone with Covid.” The CDC states that fully vaccinated individuals should also take note of specific testing guidance.

Many at-home testing kits and home collection tests are suitable for children as well. However, Nachman said it’s very challenging for parents to test young children — if they’re moving around or you’re trying to collect a sample quickly so as to not upset them, you may not collect a good sample, which can skew results. If you’re concerned about collecting a good sample from kids by yourself or are having trouble doing so, experts say it’s best to get kids tested by medical professionals.

Tips for using at-home Covid collection and testing kits

Nachman said each collection and test kit is different and requires its own specific set of procedures, so it’s crucial to read the directions before taking a sample. “It sounds silly to say, but reading the directions carefully is actually quite critical to do,” she said.

Additionally, when you get your results from collection or testing kits, they’re simply reported to you, not explained, Nachman said. Because of this, it’s important to call your primary care doctor — especially if you test positive — to understand how to proceed. “At-home tests are geared to get the information to you with the idea that you’re going to call for a helping hand to deal with the results, particularly if there’s a positive result,” she said.

Finally, Garner said some tests require the use of a companion app, so you should make sure your smartphone is compatible with it before purchasing an at-home collection or testing kit. And while Covid tests at walk-in clinics, hospitals and medical offices are typically free or covered by insurance, he noted that’s often not the case with at-home collection and testing kits.

How to get free Covid tests

Americans were previously able to order free, at-home rapid Covid antigen tests on COVIDtests.gov through a program run in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service. However, the program was suspended on Sept. 2 — Congress has not provided additional funding to replenish the nation’s stockpile of tests.

You can still get free or low-cost Covid tests through insurance plans, which are now required to provide reimbursement for eight tests per month for each individual on a plan. Tests will either be free at the time of purchase or you’ll be reimbursed if you're charged (make sure to keep your receipt if you need to submit a claim to your insurance company for reimbursement). Some health plans have developed a network of preferred providers — including in-person and online pharmacies and retailers — you can get free tests from. If you purchase tests from retailers outside that network, insurance companies are still required to reimburse you up to $12 per individual test (or the cost of the test if it’s less than $12). Additionally, keep in mind that many at-home Covid test and collection kits are HSA/FSA eligible.

Can Covid tests expire?

Yes, Covid tests can expire, and the FDA does not recommend using expired Covid tests. You can find a test’s expiration date listed on its box. Be sure to also check the expiration date column on the FDA’s List of Authorized At-Home OTC Covid Diagnostic Tests, which lists the most up-to-date expiration information. The expiration dates for Covid tests may be extended, which means “the manufacturer provided data showing that the shelf-life is longer than was known when the test was first authorized,” according to the FDA.

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