While the pursuit of equity of access to health care is a central objective of many health care systems, there is evidence that patients of ethnic minority descent, in lower socio-economic position (SEP) or of female gender are less likely than Whites, more affluent groups or men, respectively, to access secondary and tertiary medical care. However, it is unclear at which point in the chain of events leading from perception of need through attendance at primary/emergency care, to referral and receipt of secondary care, this inequality occurs. This study examined the influence of ethnicity, socio-economic position and gender on an individual's perception of the need and urgency for seeking health care. A random sample was selected from two large city General Practices in the UK who were sent postal questionnaires which included two clinical vignettes describing characters experiencing chest pain and discovering a lump in the armpit. The main outcome measure was response to the 'chest pain' and 'lump' vignettes in terms of immediate health care utilisation. The questionnaire survey (n=1350, response rate 66%) indicated that Black respondents, respondents from lower socio-economic groups and women were at least as likely to report immediate health care seeking in response to the clinical vignettes than White respondents, those from higher socio-economic groups or men. This finding was consistent across all scenarios after adjustment for interpretation of the vignette, access to health services and attitudes to health and health care. For example, those in the lowest SEP group were almost 60% more likely to report immediate care seeking in response to the lump vignette (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.08-2.33) compared to those in the highest SEP group; and Black respondents 40% more likely (OR 1.41, 95% CI 0.92-2.17). This study suggests inequalities in access to health care by ethnicity, socio-economic position and gender are not related to patients in these groups failing to self-refer to primary or accident and emergency care, barriers must therefore occur at the level of health care provision.