We examined the incidence of seven common surgical procedures in seven hospital service areas in southern Norway, in 21 districts in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, and in the 18 most heavily populated hospital service areas in Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island. Although surgical rates were higher in the New England states than in the United Kingdom or Norway, there was no greater degree of variability in the rates of surgery among the service areas within the three New England states. Hernia repair was more variable in England (P less than 0.05) and hysterectomy in Norway (P less than 0.05) than in the other countries. There was consistency among countries in the rank order of variability for most procedures: tonsillectomy, hemorrhoidectomy, hysterectomy, and prostatectomy varied more from area to area than did appendectomy, hernia repair, or cholecystectomy. The degree of variation generally appeared to be more characteristic of the procedure than of the country in which it was performed. Thus, differences among countries in the methods of organizing and financing care appear to have little relation to the intrinsic variability in the incidence of common surgical procedures among hospital service areas in these countries. Despite the differences in average rates of use, the degrees of controversy and uncertainty concerning the indications for these procedures seem to be similar among clinicians in all three countries.