Cancer incidence among English south Asians (residents in England with ethnic origins in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) is described and compared with non-south Asian and Indian subcontinent rates. The setting for the study was areas covered by Thames, Trent, West Midlands and Yorkshire cancer registries. The study identified 356 555 cases of incident cancer (ICD9:140-208) registered between 1990 and 1992, including 3845 classified as English south Asian. The main outcome measures were age specific and directly standardized incidence rates for all cancer sites (ICD9:140-208). English south Asian incidence rates for all sites combined were significantly lower than non-south Asian rates but higher than Indian subcontinent rates. English south Asian rates were substantially higher than Indian subcontinent rates for a number of common sites including lung cancer in males, breast cancer in females and lymphoma in both sexes. English south Asian rates for childhood and early adult cancer (0-29 years) were similar or higher than non-south Asian rates. English south Asian rates were significantly higher than non-south Asian rates for Hodgkin's disease in males, cancer of the tongue, mouth, oesophagus, thyroid gland and myeloid leukaemia in females, and cancer of the hypopharynx, liver and gall bladder in both sexes. The results are consistent with a transition from the lower cancer risk of the country of ethnic origin to that of the country of residence. They suggest that detrimental changes in lifestyle and other exposures have occurred in the migrant south Asian population.