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COVID-19 testing

12-minute read

If you develop symptoms such as severe shortness of breath or chest pain, call triple zero (000) immediately. Tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival if you have COVID-19.

When should I get tested for COVID-19?

You should get tested for COVID-19 if:

  • you have symptoms of the illness — even if your symptoms are mild; or
  • you have been identified as a close contact, including if you live with someone who has COVID-19, have stayed overnight in the same place as someone who is positive with COVID-19 or had more than 4 hours of contact added together with a COVID-19 case in a residential setting; or
  • you have recovered from COVID-19 and develop new symptoms of COVID-19 at least 12 weeks after you have completed your isolation time; or
  • if you have recovered from COVID-19 and at least 12 weeks have passed after your release from isolation, and:
    • you have been re-exposed to COVID-19 outside of your immediate household; or
    • there is a new case in your household and you had previously isolated away from your household; or
  • you have been advised to do so by a health professional

You may also need to get a test for travel purposes. Check state and territory travel restrictions.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker to find out if you need medical help.

Which COVID-19 test should I use?

There are 2 types of tests used to diagnose COVID-19 in Australia: Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests and rapid antigen tests (RATs).

A PCR test is the most reliable way to tell if you have COVID-19. PCR tests are done by healthcare workers who take a swab from the back of your nose and throat. The swab is then sent to a laboratory for testing, and you should have a result within 1 to 3 days.

RAT tests can be done at home, and usually give a result in 15 to 20 minutes. RAT tests require either a swab from your nose or saliva from your mouth. The test kits provide the swabs for collecting the samples. Some RAT kits ask you to collect the sample using a swab and rubbing the inside of your cheek. Some ask you to spit your saliva into a small testing tube. It’s important to carefully read and follow the instructions. However, RATs are not as accurate as PCR tests.

In most states and territories, you don’t need to have a PCR test following a positive RAT result, however you may need to report a RAT positive result, check state and territory rules.

You should get a PCR test if:

  • you have symptoms of COVID-19
  • you tested positive on a RAT and you need a PCR test to confirm your result — not all states and territories require you to confirm your result, check their rules
  • you are a close contact and don't have symptoms, but can't access a RAT

You should use a RAT if:

  • you’ve been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 (not a close contact) and do not have symptoms
  • you want to check if you have COVID-19 before attending a large event or visiting vulnerable people
  • if needed as part of a screening program by your school or your employer

How do I get tested for COVID-19?

To get a PCR test, contact your GP or visit a COVID-19 testing clinic. To find a testing clinic near you, see:

You can also search for a testing clinic in Healthdirect's Service Finder.

FIND A TESTING CLINIC — Use the Service Finder to find COVID-19 testing clinics and other health services, such as doctors, pharmacies and hospitals.

Aged-care facilities can ask for on-site testing for residents and staff. Specialised COVID-19 collection teams will collect samples from all staff and residents.

If you cannot leave your home because you have a disability and need a PCR test, you can call the Disability Gateway helpline. Call 1800 643 787, Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm (AET), except on national public holidays.

The call handler will tell you whether you’re able to have a COVID-19 test at your home. For more information, visit disabilitygateway.gov.au.

RATs can be purchased either online or from pharmacies and retail outlets. For a list of tests approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and instructions on how to use them, go to tga.gov.au/covid-19-rapid-antigen-self-tests.

How do COVID-19 tests work?

PCR tests

Polymerase chain reaction tests — PCR tests — are a type of nucleic acid test. These tests detect the presence of the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They are good at detecting the virus early in the infection, sometimes before a person develops any symptoms.

Nucleic acid tests are complicated to do and usually need to be done by specialists in a laboratory. The tests are run on automated machines that can do many tests at once. This means that a lot of people can be tested quickly.

Rapid antigen tests

Rapid antigen tests, or RATs, detect the presence of specific proteins of the virus. RATs are more accurate when used to test people with symptoms, so it’s better to use the test in the first 7 days from when symptoms appear.

RATs can be used anywhere — such as at home or at work — without the supervision of a health practitioner. The person taking the test will collect the sample, perform the test and interpret the results.

RATs are generally less accurate than PCR tests.

Learn more about rapid antigen tests.

How much does a COVID-19 test cost?

If you get a PCR test at a public health facility, mobile testing centre or GP medical practice that offers bulk billing, you will not have to pay for the test. You might have to pay to see your GP if they don't offer bulk billing, but the test itself is free.

Rapid antigen tests usually cost between $10 and $15 per test, but may be free in some cases.

What do I need to do before I get tested?

The COVID-19 test is done by taking a swab of the back of your throat and your nose. You do not need to fast beforehand or take any samples with you.

If you are getting a PCR test, you might need to make an appointment, so it is best to call ahead. However, you do not need an appointment at most mobile or drive-through testing clinics. If you are visiting a private pathology clinic for a test, you may need a referral from your doctor.

You will need to bring your Medicare card with you — if you do not have a Medicare card, bring at least one form of identification, such as your driver's licence or student ID. You will also need to provide your contact details so you can get your test results.

If you get tested at a GP practice, ask the staff how you will receive your results.

After your test, you should follow the instructions of your doctor or the healthcare professional at the testing clinic. In most cases, you will be told to go straight home and wait for your results. Do not go out in public, including going to work or school. Practise good hand and cough hygiene, and avoid close contact with other people, including members of your own household.

If you are using a RAT, follow the instructions provided with the test. It is important you do not eat, drink, smoke, brush your teeth or chew gum for 10 to 30 minutes before collecting saliva for a RAT as it may give you an incorrect result.

When will I get my COVID-19 PCR test results?

Your GP or the staff at the testing clinic should tell you how long it will take to get your test results — usually, it takes one to 3 days.

If your test result is negative, you will receive an SMS text message or a phone call from the doctor or clinic that took your test. If your test result is negative but you have a history of close contact with a case of COVID-19, you must follow the public health directions of the state or territory you are in. Check their website for more information.

If your test result is positive, you will receive a phone call or SMS text message from a doctor or a Public Health Unit to let you know what you should do next. You might also be asked about contact tracing.

The National Coronavirus Helpline does not receive test results. If you have any questions about your results, contact the clinic, GP practice or hospital where the test was carried out.

What happens if my test is positive for COVID-19?

If you test positive for COVID-19, you must immediately self-isolate. Your isolation will usually be 7 days from when you received your positive test result. However, you should check the rules for your state or territory.

People who have had contact with you, including family members and people you live with, may also need to get tested and follow public health directions. You should also check the rules of your state or territory.

Registering a positive RAT

If you tested positive using a RAT, you may need to register your result or confirm it with a PCR test. Rules for each state and territory are available below:

Do I need to tell my close contacts?

Close contacts are those people who:

  • are living with someone who has COVID-19; or
  • have spent 4 hours or longer with someone in a home or a health or aged-care setting since they developed COVID-19; or
  • under exceptional circumstances decided by individual states or territories

Read about close contacts here.

Related topics

Symptoms and when to get help

Symptoms and when to get help

Learn to recognise mild, moderate and severe symptoms of COVID-19, and when to seek medical advice from your GP or another healthcare professional.

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People with a mild case of COVID-19 can treat their symptoms in a similar way to how they treat a seasonal flu. Here's how to relieve symptoms at home.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022


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