The present paper considers the linear static analysis of composite cylindrical structures by means of a shell finite element with variable through-the-thickness kinematic. The refined models used are grouped in the Unified Formulation by Carrera (CUF), and they permit to accurately describe the distribution of displacements and stresses along the thickness of the multilayered shell. The shell element has nine nodes, and the mixed interpolation of tensorial components method is employed to contrast the membrane and shear locking phenomenon. Different composite cylindrical shells are analyzed, with various laminations and thickness ratios. The governing equations are derived from the principle of virtual displacement in order to apply the finite element method. The results, obtained with different theories contained in the CUF, are compared with both the elasticity solutions given in the literature and the analytical solutions obtained using Navier's method. From the analysis, one can conclude that the shell element based on the CUF is very efficient, and its use is mandatory with respect to the classical models in the study of composite structures. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.