Note: The following information, last updated Nov. 16, 2020, is about COVID tests prescribed by the Portuguese national health system. If you want to get tested without a prescription, read here.
The inevitable has finally happened: you’ve developed flu-like symptoms, come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19… or both.
Fortunately, Portugal’s public health system makes it possible to get a COVID-19 test at no cost, as long as you meet at least one of the requirements above and are eligible for public health coverage.
If you don’t have symptoms and haven’t been in contact with anyone who’s infected, you’ll have to pay €100 for a private test. If you have private health insurance, the cost may be partially or fully covered.
Otherwise, you’ll need to go through the process of getting a prescription, scheduling an appointment at a lab, and isolating yourself until you receive the results. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, but it’s certainly possible — I know because I did it.
1. Call SNS24
As soon as you develop suspicious symptoms or find out you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, call the Contact Center of the Serviço Nacional de Saúde (National Health Service) at 808 24 24 24.
The main menu prompts you to press 9 for English, but no promises; I called twice, pressed 9 both times, and was greeted in Portuguese. Some operators are willing to speak English, while others clearly prefer Portuguese, so be prepared.
The operator will ask if you have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, and other common symptoms. They’ll also ask if you’ve been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and if so, when the contact occurred. When I called, I was experiencing symptoms but had no known contact with a confirmed case.
If you meet the criteria for testing, they’ll direct you to the nearest health center designated for this purpose and tell you to go there as soon as possible.
2. Go to the ADC
An ADC is an Área Dedicada para avaliação e tratamento de doentes COVID-19, or an area dedicated to the evaluation and treatment of COVID-19. The one corresponding to Lisbon’s city center is located in Santa Maria Maior, near Martim Moniz. You can find the full list of ADC locations here.
Once you arrive, you may have to wait outside, as the waiting room capacity is strictly limited. I stood outside for about an hour before it was my turn to enter, but this could have been due to the time of day (early afternoon) or the fact that I went to the most central location.
When it was my turn to enter, the receptionist took my temperature and asked for my ID, email, phone number, full address, and an explanation of my symptoms.
I waited indoors for another half an hour, then went to an examination room where I spoke to a doctor. He took my oxygen levels and asked me, once again, to explain my symptoms in detail.
He then gave me a set of papers, including a prescription for a lab test, a prescription for paracetamol, a list of labs where I could get tested, and a sheet explaining the rules for isolation in English.
The doctor made it very clear that I shouldn’t leave my house for any reason except to go to the lab for the test, and must remain isolated until I received my results. He also told me that someone would be in touch via text or email to follow up with me over the coming days.
All in all, it took about two hours of waiting at the ADC to get the prescription for a lab test.
3. Schedule a lab test
Once you have your prescription, you’re on your own to actually get tested. Update Nov. 7: DGS has removed the list of labs we linked to in the original article. So for now, you’re on your own to find the ones closest to you (see our options below), and call them to ask about available appointments. Keep in mind that you’re not supposed to use public transportation or taxis while in isolation, so you’ll either need to drive to the lab or walk, if you don’t have a car.
This severely limited my options. There were four labs on the list within walking distance, and I only managed to get in touch with one on the phone. The first available slot was five days away.
However, some places also allow you to schedule appointments directly online, like the network of Joaquim Chaves Saúde labs. One of these is located near Picoas in the city center, which meant I could reach it on foot.
This lab was also fully booked for the next several days, but I kept checking until a slot opened up and then quickly reserved it. You’ll need to enter your personal information and upload the PDF version of your prescription, which you should have received by email.
The seven other listed labs in Lisbon’s city center either require you to make an appointment by phone or submit a request online or by email. These include labs in the SYNLAB, Lumilabo, Affidea, Labocentro, and Laboratório Silva Tavares networks.
The CUF network of private hospitals and Germano Sousa labs also offer COVID-19 tests, and their websites indicate that they accept SNS prescriptions — but they’re not included on the official list from the Direção-Geral da Saúde.
Update Nov. 16: Cruz Vermelha Portuguesa now offers both rapid and molecular tests for free for those who have a prescription from SNS. You must make an appointment online here or by calling 1415.
4. Get tested
At the lab, I waited in line outside for around 15 minutes before going inside to speak to the receptionist. I gave her my prescription and the testing fee was waived.
The test itself was, for me at least, just as unpleasant as the rumors make it out to be. In fact, it was worse — likely because my sinuses were already irritated. Basically, they’ll stick a long probe up each nostril and one down your throat. Definitely painful and gag-inducing, respectively. That said, the testing experience seems to vary greatly from person to person.
This whole process took about half an hour, and they told me that I would receive my results by email within the next two days.
5. Wait and isolate
Now comes the fun part: isolation. One of the documents the doctor gave me was a list of rules for the period of isolation, similar to this document.
If you live with other people, this involves a whole host of precautions around your use of common household areas and objects. If you live alone, it basically just means you’re not allowed to go anywhere for a few days.
After experiencing the lockdown measures earlier this year, most people are probably prepared to stay inside for a while. Order some groceries online, subscribe to an online streaming service or two, and try not to obsessively check your email for the test results.
6. Receive the results
After exactly 48 hours, I received an email letting me know that my test was negative. By this time, most of my symptoms had subsided, so I felt ready to re-emerge into the world.
However, you’re not technically allowed to end your isolation period until you get the go-ahead from a public health professional. I didn’t get a follow-up email from the SNS until three days after I got the prescription.
In the email, they asked if I still had symptoms. I said that I didn’t and told them I’d tested negative. They then asked when I had been in contact with a confirmed case and if I was taking any medications. We exchanged a few more emails, but I never received a clear answer about whether or not I was free to leave my house.
Two days later, a different health professional emailed me again to ask the same questions, and then gave me the official go-ahead to end my isolation.
If you test negative, it seems that best practice is to wait until you don’t have any symptoms at all to resume “normal” life. If you do develop symptoms again, go back to step one and start again.
If you test positive, of course, it’s a whole different story. You’ll need to stay in isolation much longer, and follow up with the doctor on the development of your symptoms. According to the SNS website, it’s up to local health authorities to determine when your isolation ends, but you’ll definitely need at least one negative test result to be considered officially recovered.
In any case, your best bet is to follow the doctors’ instructions. Disregarding them has serious consequences not only in terms of public health, but also the law. According to the SNS, “Those who do not comply with isolation may incur a criminal charge of civil disobedience and/or the spread of disease and be penalized with a prison sentence or fine.”