The role of preoperative endoscopic drainage for patients with malignant obstructive jaundice was evaluated in a randomized controlled trial. A total of 87 patients were assigned to either early elective surgery (44 patients) or endoscopic biliary drainage followed by exploration (43). Thirty-seven patients underwent successful stent insertion and 25 had effective biliary drainage. Complications related to endoscopy occurred in 12 patients. After endoscopic drainage significant reductions of hyperbilirubinaemia, indocyanine green retention and serum albumin concentration were observed. Patients with hilar lesions had a significantly higher incidence of cholangitis and failed endoscopic drainage after stent placement. The overall morbidity rate (18 patients versus 16) and mortality rate (six patients in each group) were similar in the two treatment arms irrespective of the level of biliary obstruction. Despite the improvement of liver function, routine application of endoscopic drainage had no demonstrable benefit. Endoscopic drainage is indicated only when early surgery is not feasible, especially for patients with distal obstruction.