Familial hemiplegic migraine (FHM) is a rare autosomal dominantly inherited subtype of migraine with aura. The clinical characteristics of FHM have been described previously in selected materials or case studies, but population-based studies are important in order to analyse the full spectrum of the disorder. The aim of the present study was to perform a systematic search for familial cases of migraine with an aura that included motor weakness in order to generate non-selected material of as many FHM cases as possible in the Danish population of 5.2 million inhabitants, and to compare this material with already available population-based clinical descriptions of migraine with typical aura (MA). Due to the rarity of FHM, traditional population-based methods were not feasible. Therefore, the search strategy employed a computer search of the National Patient Register, screening >27 000 case records from headache clinics and private neurologists, and advertisements. A total of 147 affected FHM patients from 44 families were identified. FHM patients most often had all four 'typical' aura symptoms (visual, sensory, aphasic and motor symptoms) and all had at least two of these aura symptoms during FHM attacks. The motor, sensory and visual aura symptoms were all similar in type to the motor, sensory and visual aura symptoms in MA, but FHM had a statistically significantly longer duration of the visual and sensory aura symptoms, and these and other aura symptoms often fulfilled the criteria of the International Headache Society for prolonged aura. In addition, 69% had basilar migraine (BM) symptoms during FHM attacks. The order of the aura symptoms was usually visual, followed by sensory, aphasic, motor and, lastly, basilar-type migraine symptoms. Headache was present in 99% of FHM patients during FHM attacks, whereas the aura symptoms more often occurred without headache in MA. Headache duration was significantly longer in FHM compared with MA. Based on these data, we suggest more precise diagnostic criteria for FHM and a more clear clinical distinction between FHM and BM. Our results have significant implications for case finding in genetic studies and for clinical migraine differential diagnosis.