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How to do a PCR test

PCR tests are mainly for people with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). The swab is sent to a lab to get the results.

There's separate information on how to do a rapid lateral flow test, the type of test you usually do if you do not have symptoms.

Before doing a PCR test at home

If you do the test at home, you must do the following before you do the test:

If you need help to register or do the test

Watch a video showing how to do a PCR home test on YouTube

Find step-by-step guides to doing a PCR test at home, including easy read and translated versions: GOV.UK: PCR home test kit instructions

You can call 119 (free from mobiles and landlines) if you need extra support. Lines are open every day, 7am to 11pm. 119 provides support in 200 languages.

SignVideo is a free online British Sign Language interpreter service for 119.

You can use the free Be My Eyes app to get help from trained NHS Test and Trace staff. Download the app, go to Specialized Help and select NHS Test & Trace in the Personal Health category.

The main steps for doing a PCR test

You'll be given detailed instructions with your test kit. If you're doing the test at a test site and need support, a trained helper can guide you.

These are the main steps for doing a PCR test:

  1. Wash your hands with soap or use a hand sanitiser.
  2. Lay out all the items in the test kit on the clean surface.
  3. Blow your nose and wash your hands again.
  4. Open your mouth wide and rub the swab over your tonsils (or where they would have been). Avoid the end of the swab touching your teeth, tongue and gums.
  5. Put the same swab inside your nose (about 2.5cm up or until you feel some resistance).
  6. Put the swab facing down into the tube and screw the lid tight.
  7. Put the tube in the bag provided.

Taking a sample may be uncomfortable and make you gag, but it should not hurt.

Doing a test on someone else

If you're doing a PCR test on someone else, it might help to:

  • talk them through the steps
  • try to remain calm
  • get another person to help you
  • use a torch to see their tonsils (or where they would have been)
  • get them to say "ahhhhhhh" loudly so you can see their tonsils

Stop doing the test if the person becomes distressed.

It's important to use a separate test kit for each person.

Important

If you cannot swab their tonsils, you can swab both nostrils instead. The test result may be less accurate than a nose and a tonsil swab.

Sending the test to a lab

If you do the test at a test site, they will send the swab to the lab.

If you're posting a home test kit, you should only post it in a Royal Mail priority postbox. Do not take it to a Post Office or post it in a non-priority postbox.

Page last reviewed: 21 October 2021
Next review due: 28 October 2021