You Can Test Your Vision Online—But Should You?

Why an online eye exam is no substitute for a visit to the eye doctor.

Man looking online for vision help

Too cold to go out to the movies? Curl up with Netflix. Don’t feel like braving the crowds at the market? Order your groceries online. Need a new car but hate pushy salesmen? Just browse on your laptop and have your perfect wheels delivered right to your garage. 

You can go online to earn a college degree, apply for a job, and meet your future spouse. So it’s no surprise that you get an eye exam from the comfort of your couch. 

A handful of companies now offer online self-tests that check your vision in a matter of minutes. A licensed optometrist reviews your answers and results. Within 24 hours, a prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses that you can get filled by an optician lands in your in-box. 

Convenient? Yes. A good idea? Probably not. 

“You’re trusting your eye health to a computer instead of an eye doctor,” says optometrist John Perez, O.D., who sees patients at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Layton, Utah. “Your eye exam is about way more than just updating a prescription for glasses and contacts.” 

Your eye doctor is an important part of your health-care team. Book an eye exam today!

Here’s what you need to know. 

Online Vision Tests Have Limits

Simply put: An online screening is no match for a full eye exam.  

It’s only measuring your refraction, or how nearsighted or farsighted you are, explains Dr. Perez. That means you can find out what kind of corrective lenses you need. But an online check won’t catch serious eye conditions or vision problems.

“I saw a patient in his 20s recently who’d just come in to get contacts,” says Dr. Perez. “He thought he’d walk out in an hour seeing better, but it turned out he had retinitis pigmentosa, a really serious eye condition, which eventually leads to blindness. I was able to discuss the condition with him and refer him to the low-vision specialist he will need to work with in the future, which would not have happened with an online refraction screening.” 

Dr. Perez is not the only one concerned about what online screenings miss. A report from the American Optometric Association compares online vision tests to a blood-pressure check that you might get at a pharmacy kiosk: “The reading does not provide sufficient information to determine a patient’s needed course of treatment.” 

Conditions like macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts can only be diagnosed during an in-person examination by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Your eye doctor also can pick up on high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or even the early stages of a stroke.

In 2017, for example, optometrists diagnosed more than 400,000 cases of diabetic retinopathy—in patients who weren’t even aware they had diabetes! That’s because diabetes can show up in eye tissue long before it shows up in elevated blood sugar levels. 

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The Margin for Error Is Greater, Too

“We see this all the time,” says Dr. Perez. “Patients come in with a brand-new pair of glasses that they got using an online prescription—and blurry vision. Turns out the screening results were way off and their prescriptions are inaccurate. It’s a very common thing.” 

How does that happen? Remember that the only person in the room during your online test is you. The directions need to be followed to a T to get the best results. A shaky arm or head, or stepping nine feet from the screen when you needed to be 10 feet away, can mess up the accuracy of your results. 

A proper fit is crucial. Contact lenses that don’t fit appropriately can lead to complications like visual scarring or even permanent damage to your cornea. Even the wrong eyeglasses can get in the way of your daily routines. 

Optometrists are all about double-checking their work and using the latest technology. America’s Best pros, for example, use a range of high-tech instruments to complete their eye exams, including digital retinal cameras. This tool uses infrared light to take a picture of the back of your eye that makes it easier to spot and diagnose problems. 

The most important takeaway: Getting your eyes checked is a whole lot different than buying groceries or watching a movie. Cutting corners with an online screening could permanently affect your vision—often by what the screening doesn’t show.

“Don’t take your vision for granted,” says Dr. Perez. “An exam from a professional eye doctor can make all the difference.”

Online Vision Tests Aren’t Exactly Click-and-Go

The exact steps may vary by site, but typically you start by setting up an account. Online vision tests aren’t allowed in every state, and there are often age restrictions, so the first questions cover your basic personal data. 

Next, you’ll grab your smartphone to record your answers—kind of like a remote control. The test will have you look at a series of shapes and lines. Just like looking at the Snellen eye chart, you’ll have to identify the blurriness or clarity of the images. You’ll also look at things from different distances, so be ready to move around the room. 

The test itself is pretty quick—around 20 to 30 minutes. But it does take a day for the actual prescription to come through. And then you’ll need to take your prescription to an optician.

Costs vary, too, and are not covered by insurance (although some accept FSA and HSA cards).

Remember, a comprehensive eye exam with an optometrist is free at America’s Best when you buy any two pairs of eyeglasses. Scheduling an appointment is quick and easy. Plus, you can walk out of the exam room, prescription in hand, and start trying on new frames.

We also work with many national vision insurance plans. And if your plan isn’t one of them, our staff will help you find the best frames and lenses within your budget.