How to buy prescription glasses online – What do I need?

There are many reasons why you might want to buy your prescription glasses online. As you may have noticed, your optometrist checks your vision to sell you your prescription and then will often turn around and fill that prescription for you by selling you the glasses or contact lenses that she prescribed. No other doctor in the United States fills her own prescriptions. Usually, your doctor will write a prescription for you and you will take it to a pharmacist to have the prescription filled. This is a racket that often gives your optometrist bad incentives to do things like writing a prescription for a brand and type of contact lenses that are hard to find so that you’ll always go back to your doctor to keep selling you these hard-to-find contact lenses. Whatever the reason, the important thing is that you’ve decided to shop for your glasses online, and I think you’ve come to a great decision.

You will still need to get a prescription from an optometrist. Although some eyeglass sellers online are experimenting with technology that can test your vision at home through your computer and another screen, like your phone, the technology is not yet available and seeing how much regulation there is in this field, it may never be available even if it quickly and conveniently gave you a perfect prescription. There are some online eyeglass sellers that are willing to renew your vision prescription online, so that could be a great and cheap option, particularly if your eyesight hasn’t changed in a long time.

The Prescription

How do you get your prescription? Just like you always have, you make an appointment with an optometrist, but here’s the trick: make sure to ask for a copy of your prescription! They are required to give it to you when you ask for it, you paid for it after all! You may need to be assertive because many optometrists do not want to give you your prescription because they want to make money from you when you buy your glasses from them. In fact, I tried to help my dad buy a replacement pair of glasses and I had his prescription in hand, I just needed one number and his optometrist, which is inside of a large hospital, refused to give us the number over the phone and made my dad go into the hospital during peak Covid-19 season and they refused to let me go with him despite him being in his seventies and needing my help. It was clear that they only wanted him to go in person so that they could try to change his mind about buying glasses anywhere else. I guess I don’t blame the doctor’s office since my parents regularly pay six times out of pocket for their glasses than I do online – and that’s with them using their insurance! Given his age and other factors, they literally made him risk his life so that they could get him alone, without me, to try to convince him not to go anywhere else for his glasses! Again, ask for your prescription and be assertive.

I know that many of you don’t want to go through this fight, but I will say that not all optometrists are like this. My parents insist on using their vision insurance through the same hospital where they have their healthcare coverage, their co-pay is high and the eyeglasses are incredibly expensive! It’s no wonder that doctor’s office wants to cash in as much as possible on every patient or customer that comes through the doors. We know how expensive healthcare is in this country, so I don’t think that I have to convince you of this too much. But here’s the thing, you can find optometrists who do not operate like this. That is, you can find optometrists who will not insist on also selling you the products that they put on your prescription. For example, you will notice at Costco that the Optometry and Optical Departments are different and separate. The optometrist is actually an independent eye doctor and while he or she needs to write a particular brand for your contacts, she isn’t selling you the contacts or the glasses, Costco does that through their Optical Department. So, for a super low-pressure way to get a copy of your prescription, you can find an optometrist, like the ones at Costco, who understand that you will buy your glasses through someone else. That’s what I do, I go to the independent optometrist at Costco and get a printout of my prescription. Pro-tip: Costco Optometry and Costco Optical accept insurance coverage, too. Usually, your vision insurance covers a lower price at Costco than they would at other places, but it really does even out since Costco prices are going to be lower than they would anywhere else. I should say that the Costco Optometry and Optical Departments near me accept insurance, but again, since the optometrists are independent doctors, it’s possible that some won’t accept insurance, but it’s still the best deal in town.

Pupillary Distance

There’s one number that may not appear on your prescription. This is kind of crazy, too, because many prescription forms will have a space where the doctor can write this number, and yet, they seem to always leave it blank! They leave it up to opticians, the people who sell you the glasses to figure it out. Since you’re buying your glasses online, that means that it’s up to you to figure out this number.

What is pupillary distance and what does the number mean?

Your pupil is the black hole in the middle of your eye and pupillary distance tells us how far your pupil is from the center of your face, or you might say, from the center of your nose. Sometimes, they will write the distance using one number and sometimes they will write two numbers. They will usually write only one number if both of your eyes are the same distance away from the middle of your face.  For example, my pupillary distance is written as “70.” This means that both of my eyes are 35 millimeters away from the center of my face; it’s possible to have written this as 35, 35, but if they’re the same number, you’ll often just see one number for the pupillary distance. For what it’s worth, one inch equals 25.4 millimeters. My dad, on the other hand, had two numbers for his pupillary distance, his were 35 and 37. This means that his left eye was 35 millimeters from the center of his face and his right eye was 37 millimeters from the center of his face.

How do I find my pupillary distance?

I would suggest three ways to find your pupillary distance. The first is to ask your optometrist to measure it and write it on your prescription. She may not want to do this since the opticians selling you your glasses would normally measure this for you. In the case of my father, his usual optician and the one I sent him to actually came up with different numbers. I mentioned this to the optician and she changed her numbers and acted like it really didn’t matter much, so you can see that it’s probably better to have a well-trained doctor take this measurement for you instead of an optician who is basically a salesperson who may or may not wear a white coat. If my optometrist pushes back next time, I might just tell him that I’ve been given different numbers in the past and that I wanted a third and more professional measurement. The easiest way to ask might just be to ask your optometrist to measure your pupillary distance and just tell her that you’re planning on buying your glasses online and that you’ll need that number to do so.

So again, you can ask your optometrist to measure this for you during your vision test or you can return to any place where you have bought glasses in the past and just ask them for the pupillary distance number. I had bought glasses at Costco in the past, so I just dropped by one day and asked them if they could tell me what my pupillary distance was. I was hoping that she would measure it again, but since they keep great records, she looked it up, wrote it down for me, and just told me that it was “70.” For my dad, we called his optician and though they could have told him over the phone, they made him go in in person to get it, but he got it! He also signed a waiver so that they can release his information over the phone in the future.

Finally, you can also measure it yourself! Any eyeglass seller online will tell you how to do it and there may even be an app that can help you, but all you really need is a ruler and you can just measure how far the middle of each pupil is from the center of your face. Write the distance in millimeters and that’s all! If both numbers are the same, you can double the number and report it like that. The truth is, however, that you will input it on the website however the eyeglass seller wants it. Usually, it’s one number if your eyes are the same distance from your nose or two numbers if they’re not.

What do I do with my prescription?

So you have your prescription, now what? For the fastest service, you should keep an electronic copy of your prescription. I always scan my prescription and save it on my computer, but you can also just take a picture of it, especially if you’re shopping on your phone! After you have chosen a pair of glasses, have entered the details of your prescription, chosen your customizations, and have made payment, you can upload or send the seller the electronic copy of your prescription and they will double check your prescription and your order to make sure that everything is ok.

Do I have to send them my prescription?

You might be thinking, I really don’t feel like scanning or taking a picture of my prescription, what else can I do? You can just tell the website who your optometrist is and what their phone number is and that’s all! In fact, most websites where you buy eyeglasses will have a list of optometrist names and you just need to find the name of your optometrist. Then, someone will call your optometrist to double check that your prescription is correct. No promises here, but I’ve heard of cases where someone’s optometrist is part of a big organization, like a huge hospital, and they can’t be bothered to verify patients’ prescriptions and after making a good faith effort to try to confirm your prescription, but being unable to, an online retailer might go ahead and ok your order anyway. Between uploading a copy of your prescription and giving your optometrist’s contact information, uploading your prescription will give you faster service. Providing your optometrist’s contact information usually won’t take more than three days to verify and it’s often faster than this.

Can I use my vision insurance?

In my experience, it’s usually not worth it to use your insurance, but if you’ve got it, you may as well see what kind of deal you can get. Usually, you’ll only need to enter your name and a few digits of your social security number and your insurance “allowance” will show up.  Here’s the thing though, I usually buy glasses or contacts when there are coupon codes available and my experience is that you can usually use a discount code (that anyone can get) or use your insurance allowance, but not both and the deal with the discount code is often better than the price using your insurance, so I’ll save my insurance allowance for contact lenses at Costco, even if they’re not the best deal.

Is that all?

Yup, now that you have your prescription and your pupillary distance, you have everything you need to buy your eyeglasses online, so go ahead and shop, shop, and shop some more online. You can search glasses by frame shape, size, color, or any of a number of characteristics. You can also shop for sunglasses, protective eyewear for work, or sports goggles! The choices are endless, just find a pair that works for you, and you can even use your camera to upload a picture of yourself so that you can see what the glasses will look like on you.

See How to buy prescription glasses online – Customization