Despite a growing global commitment to the provision of antiretroviral therapy (ART), its availability is still likely to be less than the need. This imbalance raises ethical dilemmas about who should be granted access to publicly-subsidized ART programmes. This paper reviews the eligibility and targeting criteria used in four case-study countries at different points in the scale-up of ART, with the aim of drawing lessons regarding ethical approaches to rationing. Mexico, Senegal, Thailand and Uganda have each made an explicit policy commitment to provide antiretrovirals to all those in need, but are achieving this goal in steps--beginning with explicit rationing of access to care. Drawing upon the case-studies and experiences elsewhere, categories of explicit rationing criteria have been identified. These include biomedical factors, adherence to treatment, prevention-driven factors, social and economic benefits, financial factors and factors driven by ethical arguments. The initial criteria for determining eligibility are typically clinical criteria and assessment of adherence prospects, followed by a number of other factors. Rationing mechanisms reflect several underlying ethical theories and the ethical underpinnings of explicit rationing criteria should reflect societal values. In order to ensure this alignment, widespread consultation with a variety of stakeholders, and not only policy-makers or physicians, is critical. Without such explicit debate, more rationing will occur implicitly and this may be more inequitable. The effects of rationing mechanisms upon equity are critically dependent upon the implementation processes. As antiretroviral programmes are implemented it is crucial to monitor who gains access to these programmes.