What you need to know before, during, and after a test at an assessment centre, pharmacy, or community lab.
Last updated: November 18, 2021
In response to the rapidly spreading and highly transmissible Omicron variant, we are taking further action to provide additional protection to high-risk settings, and continue to safeguard hospitals and ICU capacity as we continue to rapidly accelerate Ontario’s booster dose rollout. Based on the latest evidence and Ontario’s high rate of vaccination, we are also updating isolation and testing guidelines to maintain the stability of critical workforces, including frontline health-care workers, first responders and critical infrastructure like energy and food and supply chains.
This page is currently being updated to reflect these changes.
Ontario is enhancing its covid 19 testing strategy by expanding the number of testing locations and making it more convenient to access publicly funded testing for those who need it. This includes:
- easier, faster and more convenient access to publicly funded covid 19 PCR testing – testing where you are – in select pharmacies starting in mid-November
- take-home PCR self-collection kits for eligible individuals, allowing them to pick up their free test and drop off their specimens at participating pharmacies
- ID NOW rapid PCR testing to be provided to select assessment centres and pharmacies across Northern Ontario
- holiday pop-up testing sites starting in mid-December to provide vaccine education and increase access to convenient local testing during the holidays
- expanded testing options for Ontario’s students with the rollout of self-collection kits starting in mid-November and a rapid antigen screening program over the holidays
Testing remains a key component of our plan to protect our progress in the fight against covid 19 and manage covid 19 for the long-term.
Where and when to get tested
Anyone who needs a test under the provincial testing guidelines can get one at no cost.
Some locations may have certain restrictions (for example, some are unable to test young children).
At assessment centres, participating community labs or participating pharmacies (including certain mobile and temporary sites in priority areas)
You can get a free covid 19 test at a participating testing location if any of the following apply to you:
- Symptoms and exposure
- you are currently experiencing covid 19 symptoms that are not related to other know causes or conditions
- you have been exposed to a covid 19-positive person (if you know when you were exposed, get tested seven days after your last exposure and stay in self-isolation. If you do not know when you were exposed, get tested right away)
- you have received a Covid Alert app exposure notification
- you are a resident or worker in a setting that has a covid 19 outbreak, as identified by your local public health unit
- Long-term care
- you are a worker (including support workers), visitor (including caregivers), or government inspector of a long-term care home
- Temporary Foreign Workers
- you are a temporary foreign worker
- you are a person who identifies as Indigenous
- you are a person travelling into remote/isolated First Nation and Indigenous communities for work purposes
- Surgery and other reasons
- you need a test before a scheduled (non-urgent or emergent) surgery in a region with high community transmission (ask your health care provider)
- you have been recommended by your health care provider to get tested before treatment (for example, hematopoietic cell therapy, radiation, or systemic cancer treatment, etc.)
- you are required to be tested before being admitted to a hospital, long-term care home or other congregate living setting/institution (including group homes and equivalent higher-risk settings, such as homeless shelters, community supported living, disability-specific communities/congregate settings, short-term rehab, hospices, other shelters)
- you are seeking a confirmatory test after receiving a positive antigen point-of-care test (such as a rapid test) or positive self-test result
- you, and one accompanying caregiver, have written prior approval from the General Manager, OHIP, for out-of-country medical services
- you belong to any other targeted testing group as outlined in guidance from the Chief Medical Officer of Health
- you are a resident of a homeless shelter
You are not eligible for free diagnostic testing if you are seeking testing:
- as part of a vaccine policy or mandate
- to satisfy a travel requirement, unless you are a temporary foreign worker returning to your country of origin or are travelling into and out of remote/isolated First Nation and Indigenous communities for work purposes
- for entry to a private venue, event or gathering which requires a negative test result to enter
Private covid 19 tests, such as those needed for outbound international travel, are available for purchase throughout Ontario.
Groups targeted for testing by the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Long-term Care or Public Health Ontario may change from time to time. You should confirm your eligibility for a covid 19 test with your health care provider before seeking testing.
Still not sure?
Take our self-assessment to help you decide what to do or speak with your health care provider if you are unsure whether any of the above criteria applies to you.
Need more information? Read the latest provincial testing guidance (PDF).
Preparing for a test at a pharmacy
Starting November 18, we are expanding access to convenient testing locations for those who need it by increasing the number of pharmacies offering testing. A range of testing options will be available to eligible individuals at participating pharmacies, including:
- in-store lab-based PCR testing, by appointment only
- self-collection lab-based PCR kits, with no appointment necessary. Individuals will be able to pick up a lab-based PCR self-collection kit at a participating pharmacy, conduct the specimen collection at-home, and then return the collected specimen to the pharmacy to be sent for processing in a lab
Using our easy search tool to find a participating pharmacy that offers the services you need. Participating pharmacies can choose which of these testing options are offered at their stores and not every participating pharmacy site will offer all services.
Cleaning and safety standards
We understand that going to a testing location may be stressful. Please know that all testing locations, whether they are testing people with symptoms or without symptoms, have very high cleaning and safety standards to make sure the virus does not spread. Testing locations must implement and follow infection prevention and control measures in compliance with the provincial testing guidance (PDF) to protect Ontarians against covid 19.
The testing location staff will:
- require appointments for in-store testing at participating pharmacies
- wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
- organize a dedicated space to perform testing
- routinely disinfect the testing area using the highest-quality cleaning products
- make sure everyone is physically distancing and wearing masks
About the test
Most testing locations use a long, flexible swab to collect a sample through your nose.
You may feel some discomfort for a little while after.
The swab is:
- put in one nostril
- rotated around for 5 to 10 seconds
- sometimes put into the other nostril
Most swabs go deep to rub against the inner side of the nose. It may feel similar to when you get water up your nose – temporarily uncomfortable, but not painful.
Some testing locations, including some pharmacies, use less invasive collection methods such as nose or throat swabs or collection of saliva.
In the lab
The sample is sent to a lab for viral testing, also known as real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing. This test detects viral genetic material and is the most accurate.
Certain private clinics may take blood to do an antibody or serology test to tell you if you had the virus in the past. This test has significant limitations and is not used routinely in Ontario, except in limited situations. Ask your doctor or health care provider for more information.
PCR self-collection kits
Some testing locations may also have PCR self-collection kits available, which allow you to collect the sample on your own (for example at home), then return it to the testing location for processing by a lab.
Starting mid-November, PCR self-collection kits are being provided to all publicly funded schools for students and staff who are eligible for testing as per the provincial testing guidance (PDF). These kits are similar to those provided for self-collection through pharmacies. Samples collected using these kits can be dropped off at participating pharmacies and community locations for processing.
What to bring with you
- your Ontario health (OHIP) card (you can still get tested if you do not have one)
- a face covering or mask (wear one at all times)
- assistive or accessibility devices (if you need them)
- snacks (if you must eat every so often for medical reasons)
At the testing location
Follow public health measures, including:
- wearing a face covering or mask (only take it down below your nose when you are told to)
- keeping at least 2 metres away from people you do not live with
- washing or sanitizing your hands often
How long the testing process takes
Between the screening and the swab, it should take about 10 to 30 minutes. Time at each location varies.
Bringing people with you
If possible, please avoid bringing people with you unless they are also getting tested.
If you need someone with you during the test, ask the testing location ahead of time to confirm if this is possible.
Getting your test result
On average, most results are ready 48 hours after your test. This is not guaranteed and could take longer.
Depending on the testing location, you may be able to get your result:
- online on the Test Results Website if you have a photo (green) health card
- on another website that the testing location will tell you about
- by phone
The testing location will give you instructions that are specific to your situation.
While you wait for your test result
If you have covid 19 symptoms
You should self-isolate (stay at home).
If you do not have symptoms, but were exposed to a known covid 19 case, including getting a Covid Alert notification
If you are not fully vaccinated, you should self-isolate.
If you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to self-isolate, but you should self-monitor for symptoms and follow covid 19 public health measures including wearing a face covering.
If you do not have symptoms and were not exposed
Continue to follow covid 19 public health measures, including wearing a face covering, frequent handwashing, and maintaining physical distance from those outside your household. Pay attention to your health to note if anything changes.
Testing positive or negative
A positive result means it is likely that you have the virus.
You must self-isolate (stay at home) until public health clears you. Your household members must also arrange to have a covid 19 test and self-isolate if they are not fully vaccinated or if they are informed to do so by public health.
You can request a one-time key to enter into the Covid Alert mobile app. This notifies other people who have the app that they have been near someone who tested positive, without sharing any personal information.
Your local public health unit will contact you either by phone call or text message and ask you contact tracing questions. They will also let you know when you can stop self-isolating.
All people that you were in close contact with 48 hours before you developed covid 19 symptoms (or 48 hours before your test if you never had symptoms) should be told to seek testing for covid 19. Close contacts include:
- anyone that you were within 2 metres (6 feet) of for 15 minutes or more, even if you were both wearing a mask (for example, co-workers, social gatherings)
- anyone you had multiple close (within 2 metres) encounters with (even if each was less than 15 minutes)
- anyone you had close physical contact with such as shaking hands or hugging
- people you live with or provided care to (bathing, feeding, dressing)
Contact your doctor or health care provider for more information and guidance. If you develop severe symptoms requiring medical attention, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, call 911 and inform them that you have tested positive for covid 19.
A negative result means we were not able to detect the virus at the time of your test.
You should continue to follow covid 19 public health measures, including wearing a face covering, frequent handwashing, and maintaining physical distance from those outside your household. Pay attention to your health to note if anything changes.
If you were exposed to a covid 19-positive person and test negative
If you are not fully vaccinated, you must continue to self-isolate for 10 days after your last exposure with that person, even if you test negative.
If you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to self-isolate unless your public health unit informs you that you should.
Rapid tests (also known as “point-of-care” tests)
Learn about rapid tests, which can provide results in about 15 minutes and help stop the spread of covid 19.
There are two kinds of rapid tests:
Rapid point-of-care (POC) molecular tests
How they work
Rapid point-of-care molecular tests detect the genetic material of the virus to confirm if you have COVID-19. A health care professional or other trained individual will collect a fluid sample by swabbing your nose or throat.
On average, results from your rapid POC molecular test will be ready within 15 minutes.
Where we’re using them
We are using rapid POC molecular tests primarily in rural and remote settings. This is because:
- turnaround times for traditional lab-based PCR test results may be slower in these areas due to logistical challenges of transporting specimens long distances from these settings to labs
- we are supporting community-led efforts to prevent the spread of covid 19 in rural and remote regions, including Indigenous communities
Public health units across the province will also use them to help detect positive cases more quickly. For example, rapid testing may be used in early outbreak investigations and testing campaigns for vulnerable populations, like people who are homeless or people living in congregate settings.
Rapid antigen tests
How they work
Rapid antigen tests detect certain proteins in the virus to confirm its presence. A sample is collected using a swab in the nose and/or throat or nasopharynx (behind your nose and above the back of your throat).
Results from your rapid antigen test will be ready in about 15 minutes.
Where we’re using them
Rapid antigen tests are available for screening people with no symptoms (asymptomatic).
To help keep workplaces safe and prevent the spread of covid 19, many workplaces are using rapid antigen tests to routinely screen asymptomatic employees and other approved groups that aren’t fully vaccinated.
Eligible workplaces can access tests for free.
For more information on the use of rapid antigen tests, please visit the covid 19 Guidance: Considerations for Antigen Point-of-Care Testing (PDF).
Find out if your organization can apply to get free rapid test kits.
If you test positive on a rapid antigen test
Rapid antigen tests are not diagnostic tests. A positive result on a rapid antigen screen is considered a preliminary positive. Those who test positive on a rapid antigen test must get a follow-up lab-based PCR test or a rapid point-of-care molecular test within 48 hours to confirm the result.
Confirm your rapid antigen test result with a PCR test at a designated testing location. You may need to make an appointment.
Self-testing devices (PDF) have been approved by Health Canada and are being sold in retail locations in Ontario. These are rapid tests that can be used at home by people who do not have symptoms and have not been exposed to covid 19.
Self-test devices are not the same as PCR self-collection kits, which are still sent to a laboratory for processing.
The Government of Ontario continues to provide free rapid antigen tests, rapid POC molecular tests and lab-based PCR tests for those who are eligible, including high-risk sectors.
Where self-testing devices are available for purchase
You can buy self-testing devices without a prescription at participating pharmacies, stores and online retailers.
When to use a self-testing device
Only use self-testing device if you do not have symptoms and have not been exposed to covid 19.
If you test positive on a covid 19 self-testing device
If you test positive on a self-testing device, you must get a confirmatory test within 48 hours, which the Government of Ontario provides free of charge. Confirmatory tests are available at designated testing centres.
Mandatory testing at airport and land borders with the United States
- the first, when they arrive and before exiting the airport
- the second, towards the end of their 14-day quarantine period
Most fully vaccinated travellers will not be required to take a covid 19 test on-arrival. Fully vaccinated travellers may be randomly selected for mandatory testing but will not need to quarantine unless they test positive.
As of February 15, 2021, the federal government requires all travellers arriving in Canada by land, with some exceptions, to provide proof of either:
- a negative covid 19 molecular test taken in the USA within 72 hours before arriving
- a positive test taken 14 to 90 days before arrival if they've recovered from and continue to test positive for covid 19
Once in Canada, unvaccinated travelers will be required to quarantine for 14 days, unless they meet certain exceptions.
As of August 9, 2021, unvaccinated travellers entering at land borders are still required to take a covid 19 molecular test upon arrival as well as toward the end of their 14-day quarantine.
Most fully vaccinated travellers will not be required to take a covid 19 test on-arrival. Some fully vaccinated travellers may be randomly selected for mandatory on-arrival testing.
Testing requirements for travelling outside of Ontario
Visit Travelling outside of Ontario for more information on travelling to another province or territory and for guidance on travelling to an international destination. For information on Canadian testing requirements, visit covid 19: Travel, testing and borders.