You’re once again be able to order four free COVID-19 tests from the US government, and you may want to, given that people tend to get sick with respiratory infections as the temperature drops. At the very least, it’s good to be prepared.
Starting today, you’ll be able to ship rapid antigen tests to every residential address in the US, Puerto Rico and other US territories, as well as those linked to overseas military and diplomatic personnel. The tests will detect currently circulating COVID-19 variants and are intended for use through the end of 2023.
And if you still have unused COVID-19 tests, don’t throw them out—use the Food and Drug Administration’s searchable at-home test database to see if their expiration dates have been extended. Studies have shown that repeat COVID-19 infections increase the risk of hospitalization and death and that the effects of Long COVID might rival heart disease and cancer, so it’s worth hanging onto as many usable tests as you can. It’ll help you avoid spreading the disease among your family, friends, and community.
The program is a continuation of the long-running initiative the Biden-Harris administration shut down earlier this year when the COVID-19 federal public health emergency ended. Now they’re restarting it by giving a dozen US manufacturers $600 million to manufacture over-the-counter rapid tests.
How to order free at-home COVID tests
Placing an order for your free COVID tests is easy: Go to the special USPS website, enter your name, provide your shipping address (even if it’s a residential P.O. box), and hit Check Out Now under the order summary that confirms the delivery is entirely free. You can also provide an email address if you want to get shipment notifications, but you don’t have to.
Those living in multi-family, co-living, or other shared living spaces can place more than one order for free COVID tests as long as the USPS knows the address houses multiple unrelated families, but may be unable to if the government doesn’t know several families live there. If that happens, you can file a service request or call the USPS help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777) to try to get it fixed.
If you need help placing an order, you can call 1-800-232-0233 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and midnight Eastern Time, seven days a week, for assistance in English, Spanish, and more than 150 other languages. There’s also a teletype (TTY) or text telephone number at 1-888-720-7489 and the aforementioned USPS help desk.
People with disabilities can call the disability information and access line at 1-888-677-1199 between 8 a.m. and midnight ET, seven days a week, or email DIAL@usaginganddisability.org.
When to expect delivery
The tests will ship for free starting the week of October 2, and the White House has previously said most deliveries occurred within 48 hours of shipment. As always, you can contact the USPS if you have any issues with delivery. All tests sent to continental US addresses will ship with First Class Package Service (arriving in one to five days), and all other addresses will get them via Priority Mail (arriving in one to three days).
If you provide an email address when you order, you will get shipping notifications and can track the package on the USPS website. You can’t pick the tests up anywhere, even your local post office—they will always come to the address you provided, the agency says.
When to take a rapid antigen test
When you receive your tests, the package will display an expiration date, but the FDA has extended most of these beyond what may appear on the label. As mentioned above, you can use the agency’s database to check your tests’ actual expiration dates. This is especially important given the USPS has noted that some people may receive free COVID tests featuring a printed expiration date that has already passed.
As long as your tests haven’t expired, the government recommends you take them if you begin having COVID symptoms like a fever, sore throat, runny nose, or loss of taste or smell; at least five days after you are in close contact with someone who has since tested positive for COVID; or before you gather with a group, especially if that group includes people at risk of severe disease or who aren’t up to date on their vaccinations (keep in mind that you may not know who’s at risk, either).
It’s also worth noting that you should let your tests come to room temperature before using them—especially if they were delivered in freezing or blistering hot temperatures. Although the tests are built to survive a range of conditions, they might not work as well if they’re cold, the government says. Generally, rapid antigen tests are meant to be used in an environment that’s somewhere between 59 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 30 degrees Celsius), but your tests should come with specific instructions about this. The government recommends letting the unopened package sit indoors for at least two hours before opening and using any of the tests inside.
How to take a rapid antigen test
Each test kit comes with directions for how to use it, and they all involve swabbing the inside of your nose. You should get results within 30 minutes and you won’t have to leave your home. If you don’t follow the instructions, the result could be wrong. For visual learners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a how-to video, and it also has one for people who use American Sign Language.
How to interpret COVID test results
Your test will also tell you how to interpret the results, and what to do afterward, but if you test positive you very likely have COVID. You should follow the CDC’s latest guidance, which suggests you isolate for at least five days, even from people in your home. You may also want to talk to your doctor, and definitely should if you have a weakened immune system, other health conditions like cancer and diabetes, or increased risk due to a factor like smoking or obesity, the government says.
If the results come out negative, the test didn’t find COVID in your body, and you might have a lower risk of spreading the disease. It’s worth noting that these at-home antigen tests generally aren’t as accurate as PCR tests, for example, which are processed by laboratories. So if you think you got a false negative, the government suggests testing again within a few days, leaving at least 24 hours between tests.