An inverse relationship between age and human papillomavirus (HPV) prevalence has been reported in many developed countries, but information on this relationship is scarce in many other parts of the world. We carried out a cross-sectional study of sexually active women from the general population of 15 areas in 4 continents. Similar standardised protocols for women's enrolment, cervical specimen collection and PCR-based assays for HPV testing were used. HPV prevalence in different age groups was compared by study area. 18,498 women aged 15–74 years were included. Age-standardised HPV prevalence varied more than 10-fold between populations, as did the shape of age-specific curves. HPV prevalence peaked below age 25 or 35, and declined with age in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Argentina, Korea and in Lampang, Thailand and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. This was not the case in Songkla, Thailand nor Hanoi, Vietnam, where HPV prevalence was low in all age groups. In Chile, Colombia and Mexico, a second peak of HPV prevalence was detected among older women. In the poorest study areas in Asia (Shanxi, China and Dindigul, India), and in Nigeria, HPV prevalence was high across all age groups. The substantial differences observed in age-specific curves of HPV prevalence between populations may have a variety of explanations. These differences, however, underline that great caution should be used in inferring the natural history of HPV from age-specific prevalences. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.