‘Schnell’ vs ‘Selbst’: The key differences between Germany’s new Covid-19 tests

Starting this week, the German government is offering free rapid testing for everyone, while supermarkets have also started selling home test kits. What is the difference between these tests and what are they both good for?

'Schnell' vs 'Selbst': The key differences between Germany’s new Covid-19 tests
A rapid test. Photo: Zacharie Scheurer/ DPA

If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, you’ve probably heard lots of talk about Schnelltests (rapid tests) and Selbsttests (home tests).

There are similarities and differences between these two types of testing.

Both Schnelltests and Selbsttests are antigen tests as opposed to PCR tests. This means that they do not look for traces of the virus’ genetic material, but can detect its surface characteristics.

READ MORE: German supermarket Aldi sells out of home tests in a few hours

Neither are as accurate as a PCR test. Particularly, if you have just become infected, the antigen test might not come back positive.

For this reason, the German government calls the antigen tests “snapshot” that cannot replace the “gold standard” PCR test. Instead they are meant to supplement it.

What are Schnelltests?

Schnelltests are antigen tests which are conducted by a trained professional, who takes a swab from deep inside one’s throat, a somewhat tricky procedure to get right.

Results are available after about 20 minutes. If your test result comes back positive you are legally required to report it to your local health authority.

Residents of Germany have been able to undergo an antigen test since the autumn, but have had to carry the costs themselves.

As of Monday though, the government has started offering everyone one free antigen test per week. You are supposed to be able to get the test regardless of whether you have symptoms at your local pharmacy, GP’s practice, or at a corona test centre.

Are Schelltests really available nationwide?

The reality on the ground appears to be miles away from the promises made by the government.

The major cities of Berlin and Hamburg have confirmed that citizens can now obtain antigen tests for free at test centres. But the situation at pharmacies and GPs practices looks far less certain.

Gabriele Regina Overwiening, President of the Federal Association of German Pharmacists, told broadcaster ARD on Monday that it would be “impossible” for pharmacies to immediately start offering the tests.

She cited a lack of protective clothing and separate rooms for testing at pharmacies ad major hurdles that would first need to be overcome.

The German General Practitioners’ Association also said it was unrealistic that the entitlement to free corona rapid tests could be implemented immediately at GP’s practices.

What can the Schnelltests do?

The Health Ministry states that a negative Schnelltest result isn’t a “free ticket” to ignore the rules on contact restrictions. It adds that a result should only be considered valid for a single day.

However a negative result will allow people to make use of a limited number of services that have been allowed to reopen, including driving lessons, tattoo studios and massage studios.

They will also become a cornerstone of the school re-openings, with both staff and pupils at schools and kindergartens entitled to one free test per week. Trained staff will travel around schools conducting the tests.

The government had also planned to provide antigen tests at businesses where employees are unable to work from home. This plan has been delayed though after the government unexpectedly cancelled a summit with industry bosses last week.

What about Selbsttests?

The Selbsttests are testing kits that are simple enough to use that you can do it yourself at home.

They rely on you taking a swab from the front of your nose or mouth and placing it on the test kit. Just like with Schnelltests, the result will be available fifteen minutes later: one stripe on the kit is a negative result, two stripes is positive.

The government says it has ordered 200 million of these test kits and promises that they will be made available for schools shortly.

Supermarkets have been quicker in providing them though. Since Saturday they have been available from the checkout at Aldi, with each customer allowed to buy one pack that contains five tests for €25.

These tests are primarily aimed at allowing people to make an informed decision before they visit relatives and friends.

It is not compulsory to inform one’s local health authority about a positive tests result, but the government advises people to immediately request a PCR test from their doctor.

The tests will really come into their own though starting on March 22nd.

On this date new relaxations of the lockdown are planned. In regions with a seven-day incidence of between 50 and 100, restaurants, cinemas and theatres will be able to open again for people who can present a test result that came back on the same day.

There are two options for gaining access to these facilities. Either one can show a Schnelltest result that is dated on the same day, or one can use a home test kit outside the venue one want to enter.

With test kits opening up the possibility of being able to start attending cultural events again, it’s little surprise that they’ve been selling like hot cakes!

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Germany set to bring back free Covid tests

Germany is planning to bring back the offer of a free rapid Covid test per week to residents as concerns grow over the rising number of infections.

A test centre in Berlin shows the costs for a rapid and PCR test.
A test centre in Berlin shows the costs for a rapid and PCR test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

The German government shelved taxpayer-funded antigen tests on October 11th, saying it could no longer justify the free tests now that everyone has been offered a Covid vaccine. It was also hoped that getting rid of free tests would encourage more people to get vaccinated. 

The move meant people have had to pay a fee for tests out of their own pocket – and it has particularly impacted unvaccinated people who need to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test to access many indoor public facilities in Germany like eating indoors at a restaurant. 


But due to the rise in Covid infections in Germany, free antigen tests are set to return. 

According to a draft regulation by the outgoing federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU), the aim is to encourage people to get tested who may be avoiding tests for financial reasons, DPA learned from government sources on Wednesday.

Reports by German media said the new regulation is to come into force as early as next week. 

Everyone in Germany will then be entitled to at least one free Schnelltest a week.

The draft reportedly states that vaccinated people are also encouraged to get tested because they can get Covid-19 “and thus pose a risk, especially to vulnerable groups of people”.

Current rapid test providers across Germany can continue to operate. But the government draft says only medical supply stores (like pharmacies) and drugstores will be commissioned to provide tests in future. 

The aim is to prevent pop-up test stations which have previously appeared when tests were free. 

Earlier this week, coalition parties in talks to form a new government said free access to rapid tests should be brought back.

It comes after top German virologist Christian Drosten said the country needed tough contact restrictions to prevent at least 100,000 deaths.

“We have a real emergency situation now,” he said. “We need to do something immediately.”