SHARE

With the winter holidays approaching, you should take a few minutes today to order the handful of free at-home COVID-19 tests the US Postal Service is holding for you. Testing before you gather with friends and family can help reduce the likelihood of coronavirus infections or reinfections.

Every residential address in the US, Puerto Rico and other US territories, as well as those linked to overseas military and diplomatic personnel, can again request four free rapid antigen tests from the USPS. Although the federal government suspended the program in September, the Biden administration reopened ordering on Thursday following an increase in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving. Order shipments will begin the week of December 19, the White House said.

If you still have tests you ordered during the January, mid-March, or mid-May order windows, 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. Given that Congress has not approved additional funding for a federal COVID-19 response, it’s worth hanging onto as many usable tests as you can.

How to order free at-home COVID tests

Placing your order for 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 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 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 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, or between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the weekends, 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 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, or email DIAL@usaginganddisability.org.

When to expect delivery

With shipments starting the week of December 19, you should receive your order a couple days after ordering them. The White House said in May that the USPS dropped off most tests within 48 hours, but 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).

[Related: Why some long COVID clinics fail chronic illness patients]

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.

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.

[Related: The Postal Service helps keep millions of Americans alive and well]

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.

Again, for visual learners, the CDC has a video about how to interpret results, including individual ones in ASL for understanding positive and negative results.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 19, 2022.