A person conducts an at-home rapid test.
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • Each household can now order four free at-home COVID-19 tests.
  • Individuals with a health plan can receive eight over-the-counter at-home tests at no cost every month.
  • COVID-19 testing sites across the country offer no-cost rapid and PCR tests to everyone, including the uninsured.

Whether we’re in the middle of a COVID-19 surge or lull, it’s smart to have a couple of at-home rapid tests on hand. It’s also a good idea to know how to access more. But buying a stockpile isn’t the cleverest or the cheapest way to be prepared. There are actually several options to access these tests for free. Below is a breakdown of how to get free at-home rapid tests and how to most effectively use them.

How can I access free at-home COVID-19 tests? 

Each household can now order up four free at-home rapid tests through this USPS form. In addition, individuals with a health plan can also receive eight over-the-counter at-home tests at no cost every month. Depending on the health plan and insurer, these tests will either be free at the point of sale or by reimbursement. 

What determines if I will have to pay upfront and be reimbursed later?

If your plan has a network of preferred providers, you can obtain tests from within the network for free at the point of sale. You can also find tests from retailers outside that network, but your plan will only be required to reimburse you at a rate of up to $12 per test. If your plan does not have a network of preferred providers, you will have to pay out of pocket for tests, but you will be fully reimbursed regardless of the price. Be sure to keep your receipt to submit a claim for reimbursement. 

Can I still access free at-home COVID-19 tests if I’m uninsured? 

If you are uninsured or cannot afford to pay upfront, check with community health centers and Medicare-certified health clinics to see if they have any at-home tests available for free. You can also go to a COVID-19 testing site near you that offers no-cost rapid and PCR tests to everyone in the U.S., including the uninsured. These sites include your local CVS and Walgreens.

How can I most effectively use rapid tests?

When used correctly, rapid tests are critical to limiting COVID-19 transmission. Test immediately if you have symptoms. The FDA recommends taking two tests 48 hours apart to reduce the risk of getting a false negative. If you were exposed but don’t have symptoms, test five days after exposure. In this case, the FDA recommends taking three tests, each 48 hours apart, to avoid a false negative.

Neither tests, masks, nor vaccines alone will be enough to control the pandemic. Your best bet is to leverage them all in a layered approach. So test frequently and smartly, use N95 or KN95 masks in high-risk situations, and stay up to date on your vaccinations.