Coronavirus tests in France: 24 common questions

A comprehensive guide to coronavirus testing for international residents and tourists in France.

22 September 2020
A doctor takes a nose swab for coronavirus. France is now carrying out over 1 million coronavirus tests per weekFrance is now carrying out over 1 million coronavirus tests per week
By The Connexion journalist

We answer 24 questions on coronavirus testing, broken down into four categories: how coronavirus tests affect me; how being a contact case affects me; practical questions about coronavirus tests; how coronavirus tests affect travel.

How coronavirus tests affect me

When should I get tested?

You should get tested if you have coronavirus-related symptoms (cough, fever, muscle aches, headaches, loss of smell or taste, etc). A runny-nose by itself is not necessarily an indication of coronavirus. 

You must also get tested if you are identified as a contact case of someone who has tested positive. You may be told by a friend or family member, or contacted by France’s insurance agency Assurance Maladie. 

You may also need to get tested if you are planning a trip abroad or are arriving in France from abroad. More information on this can be found under the travel heading. 

Finally, you may also be required to take a coronavirus test before certain surgeries. Your doctor will advise you on this. 

France is currently carrying out over 1 million tests per week and the government has been encouraging everyone to get tested. This has led to long queues at testing centres in some parts of the country. The French government has now introduced priority testing stations, which have so far been rolled out in the Île-de-France region. 

A prominent biologists union in France has called for testing to be prioritised and targeted only at people with symptoms, contact cases and healthcare staff. Read more here. 

What do I do if I test positive?

You have taken a test, for whatever reason, and it is positive. Here are the next steps. 

You must immediately self-isolate and remain there for a minimum of seven days, and then 48 hours more after symptoms of the virus have disappeared. The French government changed this ruling recently, as previously people had to remain in isolation for 14 days. You can read about why it was changed here.

While in self-isolation, you should monitor your condition.

Take your temperature twice per day. If you have a fever or a sore head you can take paracetamol, one gram, three times per day, but not Ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories. If taking medication for another illness, continue to do so and if there are any doubts, phone your doctor. 

If the symptoms get worse, immediately phone a doctor or the emergency services on the number 15 (or 114 for people with impaired hearing). 

After a positive test you should make a list of anyone you have been in contact with in the past 48 hours, and send it to your doctor. 

I do not have a doctor in France, what do I do?

If you do not have a doctor in France, you can find one on the website Doctolib. There, you can search for médecin généraliste and type in your location. You will see a list of doctors in your area. If you click on their profile and scroll down you will see what languages they speak, should you prefer an English-speaking doctor. This website is easy to use but does not have all the doctors in France on it. For a more comprehensive list, you can search the country's health directory here

For more information, you can phone a free coronavirus hotline on 0 800 130 000. However, operators may not speak English. 

Do I have to take another test at the end of the isolation period if I have tested positive?

No. After one week and 48 hours, essentially nine days, if you have zero symptoms of coronavirus you can end your period of self-isolation. 

If your symptoms persist, you should remain in self-isolation and consult with your doctor. 

Where can I get tested?

There are over 3,400 specially designated testing centres in mainland France where people can be checked for free for Covid-19, without the need for a prescription - see more details here.

In addition mobile testing units have been set up at various key locations around the country. Details on these should be available from your local mairie

For the mobile testing units, you only need one piece of identification. You do not need to be a resident in France, have health insurance or proof of address. 

Are tests free for non-residents in France?

Yes. 

Do I need a carte vitale

No. If you do not have a health insurance card (carte vitale) for whatever reason (you are a tourist or you have just moved to France), you can still get a coronavirus test. 

You can go to a specially designated testing centre or one of the walk-in mobile units. You just need one piece of identification, preferably a passport. 

However, if you do have a carte vitale, take it with you to the test. 

Do I need a prescription to get a test?

Anyone can go to a medical analysis laboratory to request a test without a prior medical prescription and without advance payment. 

How being a contact case affects me

What should I do if I have been in contact with someone who has tested positive?

The job of getting in touch with contacts of a person who has tested positive for Covid-19 is carried out by the Assurance Maladie services. 

You may be notified by them at some point that you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus. 

If that happens, then the steps you should take depends on whether you live with the person who has tested positive. 

If you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus but do not live with them, you should take the following steps:

  • Self-isolate for seven days
  • After one week, take a PCR test
  • If the test is positive, you have the virus and should follow the above advice about what to do if you test positive
  • if it is negative, you can stop self-isolating

What do I do if I live with someone who tests positive?

  • Immediately self-isolate
  • Carry out a PCR test as soon as possible (do not wait seven days)
  • Continue to isolate until seven days after the person with coronavirus has recovered
  • Do another PCR test
  • If the test is positive, you have the virus and should follow the above advice about what to do if you test positive
  • If it is negative you can stop self-isolating

Why is there a difference in when we should get tested in these two cases?

Basically, if you get tested too early the test will be useless because after you catch the virus, there is an incubation period where the virus is not detectable. This period is on average five to six days, but can sometimes be up to two weeks. 

This is why it is recommended that people who have been in contact with someone who tests positive for the virus wait seven days before getting a test. 

Practical questions about coronavirus tests

Can I get a blood test to see if I have had coronavirus? How and is it free? 

Serological tests are used to find out if a person has developed an immune reaction after coming into contact with the virus. These tests detect the presence of antibodies by means of a blood test.

Some pharmacies are selling these tests for around €12 - €15. 

They can be free but only in the following circumstances. 

  • To confirm that a person is infected when they are displaying coronavirus symptoms but a PCR (nose swab test) is showing a negative result
  • If a person did have coronavirus symptoms but never got tested, a serological test may be prescribed to confirm that they had the virus and to avoid possible future complications
  • For healthcare workers 

Can I refuse to be tested?

In France, there is only one situation where it is really compulsory to take a PCR test: returning from certain foreign countries at risk.

If you refuse to be tested in this situation, you will have a mandatory two-week quarantine imposed on you. 

If you are contacted by Assurance Maladie services as you are a contact case and you refuse to be tested, then there are no consequences. However, you could be endangering yourself and people you come into contact with. 

What are false positives and false negatives?

A false positive is when you get a PCR test and your piece of DNA that is analysed is (wrongly) identified as being infected with Sars CoV-2. This is extremely rare. PCR tests are 99% reliable, virologist Mylène Ogliastro told FranceInfo.

A false negative result means that the test does not detect the virus, even though it is present in the body. For the PCR test to detect the virus, there must be a sufficient amount of virus in the nose at the time of testing," Ms Ogliastro said. It all depends on when the test is carried out. 

A false negative can also be explained by a poor sampling technique. For example, if the swab has not been sufficiently inserted into the nose.

How long is a coronavirus diagnosis from a PCR test valid?

A PCR test will tell you at the moment of testing if you have or do not have coronavirus. You could take the test and three-minutes later get infected. Of course, the test result that you get back will tell you that you are negative. 

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, you should get tested, even if you have recently done a test that shows you are negative. 

Why are samples taken in the nose and not in the throat? 

Basically, because it is in the nose cells that the virus is most easily detected.

The nasal swab also allows the infection to be detected as early as possible. As Sars-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus, it first develops in the nose, before eventually migrating into the saliva.

Why are some samples taken from both nostrils and others from only one?

In France, the official guidelines are to do nasal swab tests in both nostrils, “in order to avoid false negatives”, the health ministry states. 

It is possible to get an accurate result from swabbing one nostril, but two is more certain. 

Are there alternatives to the nasal swab test?

Saliva tests can detect the genetic material of coronavirus in a spit sample and are considered to be less invasive and uncomfortable for people than the nose swab tests that are currently widely used. 

The Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS), an independent public health body, gave its approval for these tests in a press release published on September 18. 

“Their advantage is that they make sampling easier, reduce the risk of contamination for nursing staff and are less unpleasant for patients,” the HAS wrote. 

The health authority said that saliva tests were not as effective as the nasal swab tests and failed to detect coronavirus in 75% of cases when the patient was asymptomatic. They should not replace nasal swab tests, which should remain the standard test, the HAS said. 

Read more here.

Are PCR tests painful? 

Opinions on this vary. One reader told us in very colourful language that it was extremely painful. Another reader said it was “unpleasant, but not particularly painful”. 

In any case, the tests last around 15 to 30 seconds. 

Why can results be different from one laboratory to the next?

If you have done two PCR tests, in two different laboratories, and the two results do not match, one of the samples may have been taken incorrectly. 

It is also possible that the two tests were done soon after infection, or at the end of the illness, when the amount of virus present in the body was low, making detection of the virus more uncertain.

Can I get tested for free more than once?

Yes. If you have coronavirus symptoms, are a contact case or require a test for a genuine reason, then it will be free. 

Why do GP practices not do PCR testing?

The nasal swab tests can only be carried out by people with specific training, and experts are needed to analyse the results. So doctors can not currently provide this service. 

However, saliva tests are easier to carry out and may soon be offered by GPs.

How coronavirus tests affect travel

Who needs a coronavirus test to enter France?

Currently exempt from all entry restrictions are travellers from the European Union, Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, United Kingdom, San Marino, the Vatican City State and Switzerland.

However, people travelling to France from countries such as the US, South Africa, India, Serbia etc, must have a negative test result before entering the country. 

A full list can be found here

How soon can I travel after I test positive?

As soon as you have completed your self-isolation period and no longer have symptoms you are free to travel again. 

What happens if I am identified as a contact case and I am abroad?

If you are abroad and you are told that you are a contact case, you are recommended to follow the local instructions of the country in which you are travelling.

If you have a question about testing in France that we have not covered on this list, please let us know by emailing news@connexionfrance.com

For any questions relating to coronavirus you can contact a helpline on 0 800 130 000.

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