Nucleotide excision repair (NER) is found throughout nature, in eubacteria, eukaryotes and archaea. In human cells it is the main pathway for the removal of damage caused by UV light, but it also acts on a wide variety of other bulky helix-distorting lesions caused by chemical mutagens. An ongoing challenge is to understand how a site of DNA damage is located during NER and distinguished from non-damaged sites. This article reviews information on damage recognition in mammalian cells and the bacterium Escherichia coli. In mammalian cells the XPC-hHR23B, XPA, RPA and TFIIH factors may all have a role in damage recognition. XPC-hHR23B has the strongest affinity for damaged DNA in some assays, as does the similar budding yeast complex Rad4-Rad23. There is current discussion as to whether XPC or XPA acts first in the repair process to recognise damage or distortions. TFIIH may play a role in distinguishing the damaged strand from the non-damaged one, if translocation along a DNA strand by the TFIIH DNA helicases is interrupted by encountering a lesion. The recognition and incision steps of human NER use 15 to 18 polypeptides, whereas E. coli requires only three proteins to obtain a similar result. Despite this, many remarkable similarities in the NER mechanism have emerged between eukaryotes and bacteria. These include use of a distortion-recognition factor, a strand separating helicase to create an open preincision complex, participation of structure-specific endonucleases and the lack of a need for certain factors when a region containing damage is already sufficiently distorted.