The study was designed to assess the patterns of use of home mechanical ventilation (HMV) for patients with chronic respiratory failure across Europe. A detailed questionnaire of centre details, HMV user characteristics and equipment choices was sent to carefully identified HMV centres in 16 European countries. A total of 483 centres treating 27,118 HMV users were identified. Of these, 329 centres completed surveys between July 2001 and June 2002, representing up to 21,526 HMV users and a response rate of between 62% and 79%. The estimated prevalence of HMV in Europe was 6.6 per 100,000 people. The variation in prevalence between countries was only partially related to the median year of starting HMV services. In addition, there were marked differences between countries in the relative proportions of lung and neuromuscular patients using HMV, and the use of tracheostomies in lung and neuromuscular HMV users. Lung users were linked to a HMV duration of <1 yr, thoracic cage users with 6-10 yrs of ventilation and neuromuscular users with a duration of > or =6 yrs. In conclusion, wide variations exist in the patterns of home mechanical ventilation provision throughout Europe. Further work is needed to monitor its use and ensure equality of provision and access.