A guide to online eye exams

eye test on laptop computer screen

Can I get a good eye exam online?

If you’re referring to a vision test to update your glasses or contacts prescription, then yes. If you’re thinking more along the lines of an eye health checkup — then, not quite.

The idea of updating your vision prescription online is relatively new and might still be unfamiliar to many. We’ll go over the ins and outs of online vision tests and help you decide if they’re right for you.

What does an online eye exam include?

Online eye exams are often referred to as vision tests or prescription checkups, since there isn’t an actual examination of the eyes. The purpose of this test is to quickly renew an existing vision prescription without the need for an office visit.

Online vision tests are available for both glasses and contact lens prescriptions.

These tests primarily focus on the “refraction” portion of an eye exam, when a visual prescription is determined. Some also test for astigmatism and color blindness.

After an online test, an optometrist will look over the results. If nothing unusual stands out, you should get your prescription shortly after. The exam itself can take as little as five minutes, and the entire process usually takes about one business day.

PREFER TO HAVE YOUR VISION CHECKED IN PERSON? Schedule an appointment with an eye doctor near you.

Online vision tests vs. in-office eye exams

To help you compare the pros and cons of online vision tests and in-office exams, we looked at convenience, accuracy and eye health of each.

Convenience

It’s hard to get more convenient than sitting on your couch with a phone or laptop.

In certain situations, a busy schedule or limited appointment availability can make it hard to squeeze in a trip to the eye doctor. If you’re in a time crunch and need an updated prescription ASAP, an online vision test can be a valuable resource.

People who live in rural, remote or underserved areas may benefit most from this. According to the advocate group Americans for Vision Care Innovation (AFVCI), nearly a quarter of all U.S. counties don’t have a resident optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Winner: Online vision tests

Availability

While online tests definitely offer easier access, they may not be available where you live. The AFVCI states that online vision tests are currently not permitted in 13 states (at time of publishing).

Winner: In-office eye exams

Accuracy

Most companies claim their online vision tests are 100% accurate under most conditions. They usually offer some form of guarantee, so you might be able to get a replacement test or your money back if a prescription proves inaccurate.

However, there are certain aspects of in-office accuracy that can’t be replicated, especially for contact lens wearers.

While there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get an updated contacts prescription online, there’s no way for a doctor to check the fit of the lens on the surface of your eye. This can not only affect comfort, but in some cases means the patient should stop wearing contacts altogether.

That said, there are certain scenarios in which an online vision test will refer the user to an eye care practitioner’s office for a more traditional exam.

Winner: In-office eye exams

Eye health

Imagine how strange an in-office eye exam would feel if the optometrist could only stand directly in front of you, with no access to medical tools or devices. This is one of the reasons an online eye exam will likely never fully replace a comprehensive exam.

But the service providers themselves will usually be the first to tell you this. Every major online provider states on their site that their tests aren’t meant to replace in-person exams — and for good reason.

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), in 2018 alone, more than 300,000 cases of diabetes were first detected by an eye doctor.

The AOA have been publicly opposed to online vision tests and continue to stress the importance of in-person exams. The organization warns that even seemingly minor changes in vision can be potential signs of disease, and early diagnosis is key.

Winner: In-office eye exams (especially if you’re over 40 or have other risk factors)

Balancing convenience and health

An online vision test can certainly be a lifesaver in a pinch, and most services claim to be as accurate as an in-office refraction test.

If you’ve just realized you’re out of contacts and your best friend’s wedding is in five days, updating your prescription online might be a good option. But a follow-up with your optometrist might also be worth considering.

Online eye exams may evolve as technology advances, but right now it’s important to be mindful of their limitations. Regular comprehensive eye exams, especially for people over 40 or with certain health conditions, are invaluable tools for maintaining lifelong eye health.

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