Overdue for an Eye Exam? Here’s How to Take One at Home for Free

a woman takes an eye exam using a laptop
Joline Buscemi tries out a free online eye exam to update her prescription. Photo courtesy of Joline Buscemi

I’m in that period of life where my vision gets worse every year.

I usually spend the last couple of months before my yearly eye exam looking forward to seeing clearly while simultaneously dreading the appointment. The time spent sitting alone in a dimly lit room. Waiting for a doctor who is inevitably running late. Deciding between row one or two; two or three; again, two or three. Feeling like I am failing what should be a very easy test.

That’s why I became so intrigued when I found out that vision exams were one more thing I could do online, free of any doctor or human interaction at all. Even better? It was free. Free as in no money.

I caught a promotion from 1-800 Contacts ($19.99 for a contacts prescription, and $10 to add on a glasses prescription), and the opportunity to take as many exams as I wanted without pay allowed me to learn what to do in order to get a vision prescription I’d be happy with.

After I took the exam, I couldn’t stop telling people about it. Convenient! Cheap! And much more fun than a typical eye exam—it felt more like a video game.

How an Online Eye Exam Works

Once you answer a few basic health questions, you’ll begin the exam on your computer, where you’ll be given a link and access code to connect to the exam through your phone. Your phone acts as a remote control to select your answers.

If you already have contacts or glasses, you’ll wear them and provide your current prescription. Depending on your vision (I’m nearsighted), your questions may be different than mine. The exam begins with a color vision test, which you take from a regular seating distance from the computer.

After that, you’ll be asked an unusual question for an eye exam: What’s your shoe size? This is how you’ll know how many steps you need to take away from your computer (I needed to take 13, so make sure you have plenty of room).

At this point, the exam will feel like a typical eye exam, minus the pressure to give the right answer. (Once, during an in-person exam, I couldn’t read any of the letters on the chart. My optometrist then showed a huge letter “o” that filled the whole screen. That one I could see.)

To test your distance vision, the tests asks you to identify the X in a row of increasingly smaller O’s. For astigmatism (which I have), you’ll go through a series of questions that ask you to choose the square that appears clearest. During each, you’ll cover your right eye, and then your left, moving through the questions once on each side.

Overall, the test is simple, easy to understand and gives you encouraging notes throughout like, “Remember to breathe!” andYou’re doing great!” which I didn’t realize I needed during an eye exam until now.

After the Exam

It takes about 15 minutes to finish the exam. When you’re done, an optometrist in your state will review your results and give you a prescription within 24 hours. I took the exam in the evenings, and each time I’d wake up with a new prescription in my inbox the next morning.

I took the online exam a total of four times and learned that this process is an art, not a science. I got a different prescription every time, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my new contacts as soon as I saw each new result.

While I wasn’t sure what my new prescription would ultimately be, my left eye’s vision had gotten worse and the first few results were the same as my then-current contacts. It wasn’t until the fourth time, when I left a note to the doctor describing my concerns, that I finally received a prescription I was happy with. I advise you to leave as much detail on any vision issues you have with your current prescription so that the doctor can write you a new prescription accurately.

If you’re someone with eye health issues, or if you are at an age where cataracts and other health problems might be a concern, an online eye exam isn’t for you. It should also be known that the word “exam” is used loosely here, as this exam doesn’t do more than give you an updated vision prescription.

It’s still a good idea to visit a doctor in person every few years to catch any problems, but if you just need an updated prescription or if you don’t have insurance I highly recommend trying out an online exam. 1-800-Contacts, Opternative and Simple Contacts all offer online exams for free or low prices.

No time off work, no vision test anxiety, and you can finally read the clock across the room.

Joline Buscemi is a content marketer and freelance writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida.