Free COVID tests arrive in the US this week, but there's a strict limit

On January 13, President Biden gave an update on the government's plan to offer free at-home COVID-19 tests, including a timeline for when the companion website would launch. Biden said at the time that the website was on track to launch "next week," referring to the week starting on January 16, and it seems that estimate was spot-on. The online ordering portal is now live, though the public won't be able to submit their orders until later on in the week.

The website used to order free at-home COVID-19 tests in the US is called, and anyone can now access it. According to the website's current home page, visitors will be able to place their orders for free tests starting on January 19, though this opportunity will come with a hard limit: no more than four free tests per household.

That may be enough to test everyone in the home one time, depending on family size, but it won't be terribly useful for people who often, for example, visit an elderly relative to deliver groceries and take care of household chores. Still, having a completely free at-home option is a great addition to the free vaccine and other pandemic-related services from the government, including things like free Lyft rides to get vaccinated.

The website is very basic at this time, merely presenting a single page with key details about the tests, as well as a version of the website available in Spanish. The government notes on the page that it won't charge users for shipping and that it won't require any sort of payment details like a credit card number to place an order.

The ordering portal will kick off on January 19 with an initial batch of 500 million COVID tests, the ones originally announced in December 2021. Biden said during his update last week that his administration is already working on acquiring another batch of 500 million tests, eventually bringing the total offered to the public to at least 1 billion.

It's unclear whether the additional inventory will lead to an increase in the number of tests that can be ordered per household — such changes may arrive based on demand over time. The free tests are being offered amid a wave of COVID-19 cases almost entirely caused by the variant of concern Omicron, which is far more contagious than previous versions of the virus.