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What you need to know about Biden’s free rapid test program

You can order free Covid-19 rapid tests that will be delivered to your home — but you’ll only get a few.

A person reaching across a large number of boxes of Covid-19 tests.
Some local governments, like Broward County, Florida, launched free rapid test programs of their own before the federal government’s website went live on Tuesday.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration’s website for free Covid-19 rapid tests is open for new orders. The government page, covidtests.gov, first arrived amid a shortage of rapid tests and a surge in Covid-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant. Now, nearly two months later, anyone who already ordered four tests can now order another four tests. This change means that a household can order eight free tests in total.

Covidtests.gov is part of the White House’s plan to buy and distribute 1 billion rapid tests. The end goal of the new testing initiative is to make it easier for people to find out whether they have Covid-19, and if necessary, isolate to curb the spread of the virus. Technically, covidtests.gov wasn’t supposed to launch until January 19, but the government released a “beta phase” version of the site ahead of that deadline, allowing many people to order tests early. Within a few hours of launch, the beta version became the most popular government website by a long shot. Despite the site’s initial popularity, nearly half of the government’s first batch of 500 million rapid tests hadn’t been claimed by the end of February, so it makes sense that the website is again accepting new orders.

This update represents an improvement over the situation late last year, when rapid tests were not only very difficult to find but also expensive. For reference, the United States Postal Service delivered 6 million test kit packages on February 22 — a record number of tests delivered in a single day since the program launched in January. Still, the Biden administration’s initiative comes with some caveats. First of all, each American household can only make two orders of test — regardless of how many people live in the household. And some of the people who’ve tried to order tests have run into technical issues and delivery delays, which means the best time to order more tests is still now.

Given that rapid tests are available again, you probably have some questions about how to navigate the program. Let’s start with the basics of the website.

So this new website lets you order free Covid-19 tests. How hard could it be?

The process is designed to be very straightforward. To order your household’s batch of at-home rapid antigen tests, go to covidtests.gov, which explains that everyone with a residential address in the United States (as well as people living at overseas diplomatic and military outposts) is eligible to get the tests.

Once you’re on the homepage, click on the bright blue “Order Free At-Home Tests” button, and you’ll get redirected to a special section of the USPS’s website. (USPS partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services to help with the logistics of the new program, and you can also start your order through the USPS website.) Fill out the form on the page by providing your name, delivery address, and, if you want an email confirmation, your email address. The page does have a box with your order information, including a spot for a dollar amount, but it does not ask for any credit card information. The dollar amount should remain at $0.00 throughout the ordering process.

Once you fill out that form, click on the bright green “Check Out Now” button, and you should be sent to a new page that includes a USPS tracking number. If you provided your email address, you’ll also receive an email with that same confirmation number. If you live in the continental US, your tests will be shipped with USPS’s First Class Package Service. If you live in Alaska or Hawaii, in a US territory, or at an overseas diplomatic or military address, your tests will be sent through Priority Mail. The site also has a frequently asked questions section that explains how to track your order and how to use the rapid tests once they’re delivered.

Don’t wait to order tests. Because tests can take some time to ship, the government recommends that people order tests on the site now, rather than waiting until they have symptoms or are exposed to someone with Covid-19. The hope is that everyone in the country will have their own mini stockpile of tests to use when they need.

Seems easy enough. What’s the catch?

There’s no catch, but there are several caveats you should keep in mind.

The biggest limitation of Biden’s free rapid test program is the test limit, and for now, there are no exceptions to this rule. While eight tests might seem like enough for a small household, rapid tests work best when they’re used in succession, and one person may need more than one test to catch a Covid-19 case.

To prevent the same household from ordering more than eight tests, the USPS website is designed to catch people who exceed the order limit. When the site first launched, this caused some people who live in apartment buildings to encounter an error message saying that someone had already ordered tests for their address. Because USPS is only sending rapid test kits to residential addresses, some people might receive an error stating that their address is listed as a business address in USPS records and isn’t eligible for free tests.

If you run into these problems, double-check that you’re including a specific apartment or unit number when filling out the order form. You can try entering the unit number in both the first line of your address and the separate apartment number box. USPS also has an address directory website that you can use to check that you’re entering your home address the same way that USPS does in its records. If that doesn’t work, consider calling USPS’s help desk at 1-800-275-8777 or filing a service request.

“Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing in January. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two.”

For those who don’t have access to a computer or an internet connection, the government has also set up a phone line. This number is the same number that the government’s vaccine hotline: 1-800-232-0233. The hotline is the only option for ordering the federal government’s free tests without visiting the online portal. You cannot stop by a local post office and pick up the tests in person.

What are my options if I need more tests?

Beyond ordering tests on the new government website, you can still buy rapid tests at pharmacies and online — and you might be able to get reimbursed for them. If you are on a private insurance plan, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, you’re entitled to get at least some, if not all, of the cost of up to eight tests reimbursed every month, according to new insurance guidance issued by the Biden administration in January.

If you don’t have insurance or rely on Medicare and need more than the tests provided by the federal government, you should seek out free tests from state or local organizations. Medicare is supposed to cover the full cost of Covid-19 rapid tests beginning this spring.

If my private insurance covers rapid tests, how do I get reimbursed?

First things first: Save the receipt for any Covid-19 test you buy. Beyond that, exactly how you get reimbursed for at-home rapid tests depends on which insurance plan you have and where you bought the test.

Some insurance companies have partnered with certain pharmacies so that their customers can get tests without going through the reimbursement process. If your plan doesn’t do this, you should contact your insurance company for details on filing for a reimbursement.

Some insurance companies have made the reimbursement process much easier than others. For instance, if you have UnitedHealthcare, you can pick up a rapid test for free at any Walmart or Rite Aid pharmacy, as long as you have your insurance card. If you have Kaiser Permanente, you can submit a reimbursement claim through a website. If you have Cigna, you can try submitting a claim online or completing a more arduous process that involves filling out a paper reimbursement form that must be mailed or faxed to the company. That Cigna reimbursement form is different from the forms you use for other insurance claims.

Getting a rapid test still feels complicated. When will things be easy?

The testing situation is improving, but it’s not perfect. There are still a lot of unknowns that have thrust even more uncertainty into an already very uncertain period of the pandemic. Even with this new federal government website, you don’t know for certain whether your test will actually arrive by the time you’ll need it, or whether you’ll have enough tests to catch a Covid-19 case should you get sick.

Still, covidtest.gov is a great opportunity to stock up on supplies while you can, and the new insurance benefits — if you’re lucky enough to have them — are better than paying full price for at-home tests. No matter how you do it, you’ll probably benefit from having some rapid tests around. And as the experts say, test early and test often. Things will get better.

Update, March 7, 2022, 4:30 pm: This story was updated to note that people who already ordered rapid tests can now order more tests.

Update, January 19, 2022, 10:30 am: This story was updated to include more information about USPS’s website and a phone number for ordering tests.