NEWS

How to Order Your Free COVID Tests From the Government

covid-19 at home test mail order

Verywell Health / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • Families can now order free at-home COVID tests online.
  • There are other options to get tested beyond using an at-home test.
  • Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to prevent severe illness and hospitalizations.

Americans can now order their third round of free at-home COVID tests from a government website called COVIDTests.gov. This time, each household will receive eight tests.

The free tests are part of President Biden’s continued response to the Omicron variant. In December, Biden promised 500 million free at-home rapid tests would be mailed out to Americans. But on January 13, he announced the administration would buy 500 million more tests, making that one billion tests in total.

Gigi Gronvall, PhD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said these tests serve as another option for families in addition to other COVID safety initiatives, like free tests distributed at schools and community health centers.

“I hope people remember a billion tests, adding manufactures, more testing sites, and giving tests to schools—all of these kinds of measures may not be perfect, but there should be a lot more tests freely available in the coming weeks,” Gronvall told Verywell.

Here’s everything we know so far about the tests and rollout.

How Do I Get My Test?

Americans can order free at-home COVID-19 tests online at COVIDTests.gov. People could originally only order up to four tests per household in order to preserve inventory. But in his State of the Union address on March 1, Biden announced Americans can order additional tests. So far, supply is higher than America's demand.

The administration also launched a phone number—1-800-232-0233—so those who do not have access to a computer or the internet can still place orders.

People ordering tests will have to enter their name and mailing address on the website and will have the option to share an email address to get updates on their order. No credit card information is needed.

Jeromie Ballreich, PhD, a health economist and assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he expects a tremendous demand for these tests and warns about potential crashes as soon as the site launches.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the government website will have much prioritization—there might be some identification for priorities, but one of the issues we don’t have is a top-down approach for identifying high-risk groups or directing resources to these high-risk groups,” Ballreich told Verywell.

Who Can Get the At-Home COVID-19 Tests? 

The COVID-19 at-home tests will be free for every household as stated by the White House.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people use an at-home test if they experience COVID symptoms, if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or ahead of an indoor gathering, regardless of symptoms or potential exposure.

What Will the Rollout Look Like and When Can I Expect My Test?

All at-home COVID-19 tests will be mailed directly to American households based on the address entered on the orders website. Tests will typically ship within 7–12 days after an order is placed online or over the phone. 

The administration is working with the United States Postal Service to package and deliver tests to Americans who placed an order. All shipments in the continental U.S. will be sent through First Class Package Service and shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. territories will be sent through Priority Mail.

But health policy experts state despite this intended timeline, there could be potential delays.

“[The administration is] working with the U.S. Post Office to make sure tests get delivered, but I don’t know if they will arrive on time,” Gronvall said. “We’re already seeing a kind of easing of the crunch on tests as more are becoming available—but availability will be very different from one state to the next.”

Nationwide staffing shortages, new variants like Omicron, and rising COVID case numbers will affect when Americans get at-home tests shipped to their door.

“I do expect this rollout using the US Postal Service to kind of be slow; I would not be surprised to see some delays,” Jeromie Ballreich, PhD, a health economist and assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell.

What If I’m Unhoused Or Don’t Have a Mailing Address? 

It’s still unclear from the Biden administration how people can get their hands on at-home COVID-19 tests if they are unhoused or experiencing homelessness.

However, Gronvall said, people who don’t have a mailing address should work with their local health department and community centers where free testing is most likely provided.

“It’s really important to partner with local public health departments and to work with those who are underserved. People who do not have a home may seek ways to get tested at the library or even schools,” Gronvall said. “For example, in Baltimore, the health department teamed up with the library to give out free tests—they were able to give out tests for hours.”

Ballreich noted that while the rapid at-home tests might not be available immediately for people who are unhoused, they could become available in the coming weeks.

“Similarly with access to vaccines, I hope similar channels—community health partners and organizations—will help them get access,” Ballreich said. “But I expect this to be within a month or two months.”

What Kind of Test Can I Expect?

All at-home COVID-19 tests distributed by the government will be rapid antigen tests that have been granted an Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

There are no specific at-home test brands outlined by the administration at this time.

According to Gronvall, rapid tests look for antigens or proteins of COVID-19. The test returns results very quickly—many within 15 minutes, and others within an hour.

“PCR tests are super sensitive, meaning they can pick up small amounts of viral genetic material on the early side of infection, but people have taken the rapid antigen test as a better proxy for infectiousness,” said Gronvall. “PCR and rapid antigen tests are closely correlated so people should feel confident using the rapid antigen test.”

PCR Tests
  • Polymer chain reaction (PCR) tests are considered the gold standard for COVID testing in the U.S.

  • Typically performed in a laboratory or healthcare setting, though at-home collection kits are available, which can then be shipped to a lab.

  • Examine microscopic pieces of a virus’s genetic material, allowing for almost perfect accuracy.

  • Lab analysis can take hours or days.

Rapid Antigen Tests
  • Rapid antigen tests allow for quicker testing.

  • Most COVID test kits that allow you to both collect your sample and see your results at home use rapid tests.

  • Examine pieces of the viral proteins in a virus as opposed to its genetic material. This makes them slightly less accurate, especially if you don’t have symptoms.

  • Can give results in 10 minutes to an hour.

But Gronvall warns when tests are taken, it’s only a snapshot of a moment in time. People have to be aware in the first hours or days of exposure that there might not be enough virus in the body to trigger a positive result on a rapid or PCR test.

“With COVID tests, if you get a negative, it only speaks to that moment in time and not necessarily what’s going to happen the next day,” Gronvall said.

Are the Tests Really Free and Who Is Paying for Them?

All at-home COVID tests ordered via COVIDTests.gov are free—and funds are coming from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021.

According to a summary of the bill, it "provides $48.3 billion for testing in order to contain the virus and mitigate its effects, hire staff for contact tracing, provide [personal protective equipment] for frontline health workers, and take other steps to combat the virus.”

“There’s a lot of money from ARPA that has gone to schools to update their ventilation systems and upgrade their testing programs, and this is part of the same bucket of funds,” said Gronvall.

White House officials said they are currently completing a contracting process to purchase the billion at-home rapid tests.

“The administration is quickly completing a contracting process for this unprecedented purchase of 500 million at-home rapid tests, with over 420 million tests already under contract,” said a senior administration official during a press call on January 14.

The White House says, “Given the incredible volume of tests being procured and the diversity of manufacturers, additional contracts will continue to be awarded over the coming weeks.”

How Else Can I Get Tested for COVID-19?

If you don’t have access to an at-home COVID-19 test, there are other ways to get tested—including with your healthcare provider, your local health department, or a community testing site in your state near you. 

If you have health insurance, your plan should also now reimburse the bulk of the cost of at-home tests.

“Tests are fantastic but by themselves, it’s not the only thing that will end the pandemic,” Gronvall said. “Ultimately, vaccination is where it’s at and we need to vaccinate the world along with the almost 40% of Americans that have not gotten vaccinated yet.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The White House. Fact sheet: the Biden Administration to begin distributing at-home, rapid COVID-19 tests to Americans for free.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19: self-testing.

  3. The White House. Background press call on the rollout of 500 million free tests to American homes.

  4. Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Treasury. FAQs about Affordable Care Act implementation part 51, Families First Coronavirus Response Act and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act implementation.