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Cartoon of someone administering COVID test
Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

Medical experts have encouraged immunocompromised patients to stock up on at-home COVID-19 tests this winter season, which is particularly important if you’ve traveled or been around crowds.

However, with each one costing about $10 over-the-counter (and multiple tests recommended for those who have been exposed to COVID-19), it’s worth pinpointing the ways you can get them for free.

Fortunately, every U.S. household is once again eligible to order four free at-home COVID-19 tests — plus, plans and insurers are required to cover at-home, over-the-counter tests purchased on or after January 15, 2022.

Here’s how you can get your tests, along with tips for taking at-home tests that provide you with accurate results.

How to Order Your Tests

The free COVID-19 tests are part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-⁠19 Winter Preparedness Plan and will only be available for a limited time. The orders began shipping the week of December 19th.

Here’s how to order yours in less than two minutes:

  1. Visit www.COVIDTests.gov 
  2. Click “Order Free At-Home Tests”
  3. Fill out your contact and shipping information
  4. Click “Check Out Now”

You can also call 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489).

These free at-home tests are available for every residential address in the U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Territories, and overseas military and diplomatic addresses (APO/FPO/DPO). You may also request your tests be sent to a POBox, as long as it’s registered as a residential POBox, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Your tests will be delivered via the U.S. Postal Service and all orders within the continental United States will be sent through First Class Package Service (all other shipments will be sent through Priority Mail). You’ll be able to track your order status if you provide an email address to receive notifications with shipping updates.

Although you can’t choose the brand of COVID-19 test you receive as part of the program, they are all FDA-authorized at-home rapid antigen tests.

More Ways to Get Free COVID Tests

Plans and insurers are required to cover the cost of over-the-counter, at-home tests (up to eight at-home tests per month for every person covered by your plan) purchased on or after January 15, 2022, per the HHS. It’s very possible your plan also provides coverage for those purchased before January 15, but this is not a federal law requirement.

On or after January 15, the tests might be free at the point of sale if your health plan provides direct coverage — or you’ll get reimbursed if you’re charged, per the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Keep your receipt if you need to submit a claim, which you can do through your health plan.

Even if your plan has a network of preferred providers where you can get a test for free, you can still get tests from outside retailers: Insurance companies are required to reimburse you for up to $12 per individual test (or its cost if less than $12).

There are also 15,000 free community-based testing sites, such as pharmacies, across the country. Locate low- or no-cost testing in your state using this tool.

Your local schools, nursing homes, community healthy centers, rural health clinics, and food banks might also offer free at-home tests — call ahead to ask if they’re available.

Scam warning: Be aware that scammers are unfortunately targeting Medicare recipients with fake offers for free COVID tests in an effort to get your Medicare information. They may try to lure you in with websites or online/TV ads, and once you give them your information, they’ll bill the fraudulent charges to Medicare, per the Department of Health and Human Service. You can learn more about these scams via the Federal Trade Commission.

Tips for Taking Your At-Home Test

Follow these four tips to ensure you’re getting accurate results.

Check the Expiration Date

If you’ve rummaged through your bathroom cupboards, only to find you have expired tests, don’t toss them out quite yet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has extended the expiration dates for most at-home tests.

To find out if yours can still be used, consult this table from the FDA. If the shelf life has been extended, you’ll find a link to updated expiration dates. If the table does not say the shelf life is extended, you should still go by the expiration date on the label of the test’s box.

“Many home tests have had shelf life extension past the expiry date,” says infectious disease physician Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “In general, an expired test that delivers a positive result can be considered to be reliable. A negative test and a symptomatic individual may need to be followed up with more testing.”

Swab Thoroughly and Correctly

It’s worth reading the pamphlet of test instructions you get, even if you’ve already taken an at-home test, since they can vary by brand. Make sure you keep the swab in your nose for the instructed period of time (and rotate it as the instructions describe) so you can collect a viable sample.

“Some people do not get an adequate specimen,” says Dr. Adalja. This, in turn, can affect your results and lead to a false negative.

Have a small amount of blood in your nose from the dry winter air? Don’t worry — you can still use your swab, as long as you don’t have a major nose bleed. “It should not impact the sensitivity and specificity of a COVID test,” adds Dr. Adalja. (Though some COVID test kits warn against using a swab with excess blood).

You should be careful not to touch the head of the swab (the part that goes in your nose) with anything else, including your fingers. For more information, watch this CDC video on how to use a self-test.

Make Sure They’re Not Damaged

Accidentally left your at-home test package out on the icy porch? The developers of at-home tests have done testing to make sure that performance will stay stable, even when the tests are stored at various temperatures — including shipping during the summer in high-temperature regions and in the winter in very cold regions, per the FDA.

However, you shouldn’t use the test while it’s still cold (i.e. right after it’s been brought in from freezing temperatures) or if you’re in a hotter than expected environment (i.e. outside in the summer), since this can affect test performance.

Bring your package inside and leave it at room temperature for at least two hours before opening it.

Test Again

One of the most common at-home testing mistakes: Testing negative, then not testing again.

“A negative test needs to be followed up with a second test when someone is symptomatic,” says Dr. Adalja. “This is especially true in the immunocompromised. You may need more sophisticated testing because respiratory viruses can be very detrimental to you.”

If you tested negative but are symptomatic, call your doctor. They may ask you to come in for a PCR COVID-19 test or flu test, both of which are especially important if you’re high-risk for complications.

PCR COVID-19 tests are more sensitive than the 15-minute antigen tests you take at home, which don’t always rule out infection. The PCR tests are sent to a lab for results, which can take a few days, but are important to confirm your results if you’re symptomatic.

If both tests are negative, you could be symptomatic for other reasons, like the flu, a different respiratory infection, allergies, and so forth — which your doctor can diagnose.

Learn more about at-home COVID tests

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Biden-Harris Administration Requires Insurance Companies and Group Health Plans to Cover the Cost of At-Home COVID-19 Tests, Increasing Access to Free Tests. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2022/01/10/biden-harris-administration-requires-insurance-companies-group-health-plans-to-cover-cost-at-home-covid-19-tests-increasing-access-free-tests.html.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. January 10, 2022. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2022/01/10/biden-harris-administration-requires-insurance-companies-group-health-plans-to-cover-cost-at-home-covid-19-tests-increasing-access-free-tests.html. 

Fact Sheet: Biden Administration Announces COVID-⁠19 Winter Preparedness Plan. The White House. December 15, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/12/15/fact-sheet-biden-administration-announces-covid-19-winter-preparedness-plan/

Frequently Asked Questions. Covid.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed January 3, 2022. https://www.covid.gov/tests/faq.

Interview with infectious disease physician Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

How To Use a Self-Test. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). YouTube. April 6, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBrf5BXkOaE.

At-Home COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests: Frequently Asked Questions. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. December 14, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-covid-19-and-medical-devices/home-covid-19-diagnostic-tests-frequently-asked-questions