How to get a coronavirus test in Italy

Do you need a prescription? How much does it cost? Whether you think you might be infected or you need a test to travel or work, here’s a guide to getting tested for coronavirus in Italy.

How to get a coronavirus test in Italy
Do you know the difference between the various tests available in Italy? Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The situation has changed since this article was first published. Find a more recent guide to getting tested in Italy here

The procedure varies according to your reasons for getting a test and where you are in Italy, but we’ve summarised the basic steps you’re likely to have to take.

Check your local health authority’s website for detailed rules where you are, and if in doubt, ask a doctor.

Which tests are available in Italy?

There are three main types of test to know about: molecular, antigen and antibody.

A molecular test – the most common of which is called a PCR test, or in Italian simply ‘un tampone’ (‘a swab’) – tells you if you are actively infected with the new coronavirus. It involves taking a nose or throat swab and examining it for traces of the virus’s genetic material.

The sample has to be sent to a lab for analysis, which means results take at least a day if not longer.

It’s considered the most reliable form of testing, even if it’s not 100 percent accurate, and in Italy as in most countries it’s the standard way to diagnose coronavirus infection. This is the kind of test you’ll be prescribed by a doctor if you have symptoms of Covid-19, or to confirm the results of a positive antigen or antibody test.

READ ALSO: Why Italy’s trailblazing rapid tests failed to stop the second wave

An antigen test (‘test antigene’ or ‘test antigenico’, or sometimes just ‘tampone rapido’, ‘fast swab’) is also conducted via a nasal swab, but the sample is tested for proteins that are found on the surface of the virus – a simpler and quicker process which means you can get the result within an hour.

These are the tests being used for mass screening of passengers at airports, stations and ferry terminals in Italy, but it’s important to know that they are less accurate than a PCR test.

Mass antigen testing being carried out at a school gym in Alto Adige (South Tyrol). Photo: Pierre Teyssot/AFP

Antibody tests (usually called a ‘test sierologico’ in Italian) are carried out via blood samples: your blood serum is analysed for antibodies that indicate you have had an immune system response to the coronavirus.

Unlike the other two tests, an antibody test does not tell you whether you are currently infected – nor does the presence of antibodies mean that you can’t be infected again. If your result is positive, you’ll have to follow up with a swab test to check whether you’re currently carrying the virus.

How to get tested if you suspect you have coronavirus

You should get tested as a matter of urgency if you have been in contact with someone who is infected with coronavirus, or if you have Covid-19 symptoms (fever, coughing, tiredness, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, headache, diarrhoea, difficulty breathing, chest pain).

Do not go to a doctor or hospital: call your GP, your region’s dedicated coronavirus helpline (full list here), or the nationwide 1500 number for assistance.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus in Italy: The phone numbers and websites you need to know about

You’ll be prioritised for a PCR test, which will be arranged in a way that minimises your contact with others, for example by having a healthcare worker come to take your sample at home.

Because the test is considered an emergency procedure you do not have to pay, but you must quarantine while you wait for your swab and the result.

How to get tested if you’re travelling to Italy

Italy requires people travelling from certain high-risk countries within the EU to get tested on arrival.

Currently that includes:

  • Belgium
  • France (including overseas French territories)
  • The Netherlands
  • Czech Republic
  • Spain (including overseas Spanish territories)
  • United Kingdom (including overseas British territories)

You have three options to get tested:

  • In the country you’re travelling from, no more than 72 hours before you leave;
  • Immediately upon arrival in Italy, at the airport or port where you disembark;
  • At a healthcare facility, no more than 48 hours after you arrive.

Both PCR and antigen tests are accepted, but not antibody tests.

Most major airports in Italy, as well as some international ports and train stations, offer rapid antigen tests for travellers arriving from one of these countries. In most cases you can get tested for free, without an appointment, simply upon following the signs to the onsite testing centre and showing your ticket.

If you wait to get tested, you’ll need to find a healthcare facility that’s authorised by the regional government to carry out tests, make an appointment and arrange to travel there privately.

READ ALSO: Where to find the latest Covid-19 information for your region of Italy

You should self-isolate and avoid public transport until you’ve taken the test and got your result.

In the case of rapid antigen tests carried out en masse, sometimes you’ll only be informed if you test positive: so no news is good news. If you don’t hear anything the same day, you can assume you’re negative (though you should be given the test centre’s contact details if you want to request confirmation of your result).

How to get tested for any other reason

You can also request a coronavirus test for any other reason, including travel to another country that requires passengers to show a negative test result, to return to work or for simple peace of mind.

Just bear in mind that if you’re getting tested out of choice rather than emergency, you’ll probably face higher fees.

Do you need a prescription? 

You can get a prescription for a PCR test from your regular GP, if you have one, or any primary care physician. This will allow you to get tested at a public healthcare facility for minimal or no cost.

But many regions of Italy now allow you to pay for a private test without seeing a doctor first. All three types of test are available privately, though PCR tests are less widely available and cost more.

If you take an antigen or antibody test and it comes back positive, you’ll have to take a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result.

Where can you get tested?

The government only authorizes certain healthcare facilities in Italy to carry out swab tests, since health authorities want to make sure they’re immediately informed every time someone tests positive so they can properly monitor them.

But in recent months regional health services have massively expanded the list of places you can get tested, which now includes private labs, pharmacies and doctors’ offices as well as hospitals and drive-through centres.

Drive-through testing in Rome. Photo: Laurent Emmanuel/AFP

Check your region’s website for a full list of approved facilities. In Lazio for example, the region around Rome, there are 14 places where you can get a private PCR test and nearly 250 where you can pay for a rapid antigen test.

Many schools and workplaces now offer on-site testing for students and employees too.

How much does it cost?

Tests prescribed to people with symptoms or who have been exposed to someone with Covid-19 are free.

So are tests at airports for travellers entering Italy from one of the countries on its risk list.

READ ALSO: Naples residents donate coronavirus tests amid shortage

If you choose to get tested elsewhere, the cost depends on the regional healthcare service and the facility where you have it done, as well as what kind of test you’re getting.

In Lazio, for example, the region has capped the cost of a private PCR test at €60 and private antigen tests at €22. Blood tests generally cost around €30 in a private lab. 

Serological test kits in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

How do you get the results?

You should be given full details of how long the results will take and how you’ll get them when your sample is taken, but generally you can assume that you’ll be contacted as a matter of urgency if you test positive.

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Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.