How Long Does It Take to Get COVID-19 Test Results?

Woman gets a COVID test at Sameday Testing in Santa Monica, CA. Image Source: Sameday Testing.

COVID-19 test results can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. The time it takes to receive your test results will ultimately depend on the type of test you received and where it took place.

You’ve had a COVID-19 test, what next?

Waiting for your test results can feel stressful, so having a timeline for your results is important. 

In theory it only takes a few minutes to process certain tests and determine whether you’ve tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, these rapid tests may return false-negatives if the amount of virus particles in your system are low.

In contrast, a more reliable test can take as little as a few hours to return results, but with supply chain disruptions and busy labs requiring longer processing times, results may not be logistically ready for days or weeks.

The type of test you receive and how many tests have been administered in your local area will play a major role in your COVID-19 results timeline. To understand more, let’s start with the basics. There are currently two types of FDA-approved tests used to diagnose current COVID-19 infection - known as diagnostic tests

These include:

  • Molecular Tests
  • Antigen Tests

Here’s the results timeline for each test type.

Molecular Tests (PCR Tests)

Molecular tests are considered the most reliable way to test for an active COVID-19 infection. These tests look for genetic material of the virus using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It’s likely you, or someone you know, has experienced a PCR test during the course of the pandemic. This is done by collecting a fluid sample using a nasal swab to collect mucus. Your swab will contain an RNA sample, which carries the genetic information of the coronavirus. As a result, PCR tests are highly accurate and a valuable testing tool.

How long will my PCR test results take?

PCR tests are considered the ‘gold standard’ for accurate diagnosis of the coronavirus, and bring a 99% accuracy in identifying infected individuals. This accuracy comes with a trade-off of time though as PCR tests require trained personnel, specific reagents, and complex testing machines.

In theory this means PCR tests are available in a matter of hours. However, collecting and processing tests in areas with large numbers of COVID-19 tests can push returned results into days or even weeks. As per the American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA), lab processing for PCR tests has been increased to meet surging demands, but are still likely to experience delays. 

Recent studies have shown average wait times for Americans is currently 2.7 days, down from 4 days during April of 2020.

Antigen Tests (Rapid Tests)

Antigen tests are significantly faster than PCR tests and can deliver results in a matter of minutes. From a patient’s perspective the testing process is similar to a PCR test, with nasal swabs taken to collect samples. This sample is then mixed with a solution that breaks down the virus and frees specific proteins. When added to a testing strip, a positive result can be detected by analysing the reaction.

How long will my antigen test results take?

Antigen tests can return results in under 30 minutes. 

However, this speed comes with a trade-off for sensitivity with antigen tests requiring a higher concentration of virus particles to deliver a positive result. If an individual has a small amount of COVID-19 virus particles in their body, their test results may display a false-negative. This may lead to positive individuals failing to self-isolate and leading to further community spread.

This is why COVID-19 test turnaround times vary

COVID-19 tests in a vacuum can return accurate results in as little as a few hours - but the scale of the pandemic’s effect on the United States means this is not a realistic timeline to expect.

As the number of infected Americans goes up, the number of people requiring tests for COVID-19 will also increase. This places pressure on testing labs, health departments and hospitals. As a result, most COVID-19 test results are returned to individuals anywhere from a few days to a week.

As a reference, the County of Los Angeles expects to return tests within 3-5 days, while the Minnesota Department of Health advises ‘several’ days. With wait times for testing sites often extended, it’s a reality of the pandemic that many labs will endure delays.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer when figuring out your own COVID-19 test results timeline. While the PCR and antigen tests are capable of a diagnosis within minutes or hours, the logistical reality facing Americans means you could wait up to a week for results.

If you’re looking to find your local COVID-19 testing location, use for up-to-date testing information. With over 11,000 testing sites included, PCR Testing can help you find the test you need, and get the results back as soon as possible.