In the northern provinces of China, the birth prevalence rate of neural tube defects (NTDs) is among the highest in the world-at about 6 per 1,000 births in rural areas. A unique population-based birth defects surveillance system in which photographs are taken of infants with selected external birth defects was implemented in two provinces in northern China and two provinces in southern China where NTD rates approximate those in the United States. In the period from March 1992 through December 1993, 660 infants with NTDs were identified by the surveillance project from a birth cohort of 251,567. We compared data from the two surveillance areas in China with data from a low-prevalence area in the United States to determine if the pattern of NTD types differs. Based on birth prevalence rates of NTDs from the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program, the observed to expected ratios for two types of NTDs are markedly increased at 80.8 for craniorachischisis and 25.0 for iniencephaly. Rates of these two NTDs in the southern provinces are increased to a lesser degree with observed to expected ratios of 7.1 for craniorachischisis and 2.7 for iniencephaly. The pattern of NTDs in northern China shows an increase in types that are rare in low-prevalence areas such as metropolitan Atlanta. Increased awareness of varying patterns of NTDs in different populations may have important implications for identifying etiologic and pathogenetic mechanisms of NTDs.