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COVID testing in Australia: What you need to know

PCR or rapid antigen? Where can I buy a test, what will it cost and how long will I wait? All your questions are answered here.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to be a massive issue in Australia, with new variants ensuring the medical community, governments and the general public are still being heavily impacted. Roughly 2 years into it, advice around testing, self-isolating, and even reporting cases is still evolving.

By now most Australians would have conducted a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test to detect the virus. But the escalation of cases since the Omicron variant emerged in late 2021 has led to a rush on rapid antigen tests (RATs).

Read on for everything Australians need to know about rapid antigen home testing and how it compares to PCR.

What is a rapid antigen test?

Rapid antigen tests are a screening tool that helps detect COVID-19 in people without any symptoms (asymptomatic). The NSW government states these are quicker and easier than a standard PCR test but also less effective.

You can compare rapid antigen tests here. The test involves conducting a saliva sample or nasal swab and placing it into a chemical solution. They provide results within around 20 minutes and can be conducted at home, or anywhere else you choose.

Unlike a clinic test, you don't necessarily need to shove anything down your throat or up your nose if you opt for a saliva test. Here's a video demonstration of a saliva testing kit:

Rapid antigen test vs PCR test

Here are the main differences between PCR tests (the type you receive at clinics) and rapid antigen tests (available for home testing).

Nucleic acid-based testing (PCR tests)

Molecular or nucleic acid-based tests (also known as PCR tests) are the most accurate way to test for COVID-19 and are usually carried out by specialised laboratories.

  • How it works. It detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (RNA) in respiratory samples to determine if COVID-19 is present.
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 1–2 days).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long does it take? It usually takes 1–2 days to process the results.

Antigen-based testing (rapid tests)

Antigen tests are rapid COVID-19 tests that produce quick results when you test for COVID-19 at home, at a doctor's office, pharmacies or in workplace/academic settings.

  • How it works. Samples are placed in an extraction buffer or reagent and tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2-specific virus proteins (also called antigens).
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 15 minutes).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long does it take? It usually takes 15 minutes to process the results.

Where to buy rapid antigen testing kits in Australia

Where can I get a COVID test in my state?

Rules and availability in terms of COVID tests vary across the country. You can check out more information in the following guides:

How do I know if a RAT test is legit?

Rapid antigen tests have been available to buy in Australia since 1 November 2021.

It's worth noting that all COVID-19 testing kits require Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approval and inclusion in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) to be legally supplied in Australia. Dozens of kits from different companies have been assessed by the TGA. Approved kits must meet the following criteria:

  • Instructions for use are written in a way that all consumers can understand.
  • Usability testing has been successful.
  • Self-tests perform satisfactorily against variants such as Delta and Omicron.

How much do COVID home testing kits cost?

Costs can vary widely among RAT suppliers. They are often sold in multi-packs. 2-packs retail for around $20–$45, with 5 and 10-pack options also on the market.

"When purchasing wholesale for a business or doctors' clinic, it's around $8 to $15 per pack, but for individual purchase, the price is higher," explained Mimi Ho, clinical supervisor and policy advisor at Globalhealthworkz. "This is because each kit needs to be packaged in a separate box with detailed instructions, so the production costs are obviously higher."

The Australian Prime Minister has warned of stiff penalties and potential jail time for "price gouging" with tests. The tests have also been made free for those holding a pension concession card, Commonwealth seniors health care card or low-income health card, among others.

Is home testing as effective as going to a clinic?

No. The chief benefit of rapid antigen testing is speed and simplicity. Unlike PCR testing, the RAT test doesn't need to be administered by a medical professional or sent to a lab. On the downside, they aren't as reliable. If you need to book a PCR test, we have information in this guide.

Where to buy COVID home testing kits in Australia

Be careful! Things to check with rapid antigen tests

We're checking availability for RAT testing kits regularly but delivery times are subject to change. All tests sold in Australia must be approved by the TGA. Some sellers try and charge prices far above the average ("price gouging"). This isn't legal in Australia. Always consider your options carefully before buying.

Name Product Test type Price from Price per test Delivery Cost
Little Whales
Little Whales
$26 (Touchbio 2-pack)
Ships Australia-wide.
$15 flat rate or FREE on orders over $100
Go to site
Aussie Pharma Direct
Aussie Pharma Direct
$3.95 (Sonictec 1-pack)
Free shipping
Go to site
$20 (2San Lyher 5-pack)
$7 or FREE on orders $30+
Go to site
Oral, Nasal
$10.99 (Juschek 5-pack)
$9 or FREE for select sellers
Go to site
Oral, Nasal
$3.99 (Juschek 1-pack)
$9.99 or FREE on orders $39+
Go to site

What are the rules surrounding rapid antigen testing?

To ease the pressure being felt by the healthcare system due to massive testing demands, the national cabinet has agreed to new measures around testing.

If you record a positive result on a rapid antigen test, you now no longer need to have a follow-up PCR test as was previously required. Those people are now encouraged to contact their GP for the next steps. The exact rules around a positive RAT result are varied among individual states and territories.

Truck drivers are no longer required to have rolling tests and testing is no longer required before interstate travel except for Tasmania and Western Australia.

It's also worth noting that RATs aren't accepted for travel into Australia. A negative PCR test is required within 3 days of inbound travel to Australia. You currently don't need to provide a negative PCR test at check-in to meet requirements when departing Australia.

Some countries and airlines do require a pre-departure test result before you will be allowed to board, so make sure to do the necessary research before any trip.

Do I need to register a positive RAT test?

Yes. At the time of writing, if you record a positive test in Victoria, Tasmania or NSW, you need to register with your state health authority. It's expected that all states and territories will soon adopt this requirement.

Victoria is the first state to include rapid antigen test results in its daily reporting numbers, not just PCR tests. That led to a significant spike in reported numbers over the weekend.

The federal government also announced that as of 10 January, a positive rapid antigen test can also be used to claim the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment.

Which provider should I use?

You should only buy COVID test kits from reputable Australian providers, especially when buying online. It's best to avoid overseas retailers as they may be selling products not approved by the TGA. You should also compare prices between different providers to ensure you're not paying too much.

You can learn more about local providers and their test kits at the links below:

  • AUSTiC
  • Canberra
  • Ballarat
  • Little Whales
  • Newcastle
  • Roche
  • Rightsign
  • Ecotest
  • Lyher
  • Hough

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