The surface air temperature (SAT) over the Arctic Ocean in reanalyses and global climate model simulations was assessed using the International Arctic Buoy Programme/Polar Exchange at the Sea Surface (IABP/POLES) observations for the period 1979–1999. The reanalyses, including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction Reanalysis II (NCEP2) and European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast 40-year Reanalysis (ERA40), show encouraging agreement with the IABP/POLES observations, although some spatiotemporal discrepancies are noteworthy. The reanalyses have warm annual mean biases and underestimate the observed interannual SAT variability in summer. Additionally, NCEP2 shows an excessive warming trend. Most model simulations (coordinated by the International Panel on Climate Change for its Fourth Assessment Report) reproduce the annual mean, seasonal cycle, and trend of the observed SAT reasonably well, particularly the multi-model ensemble mean. However, large discrepancies are found. Some models have the annual mean SAT biases far exceeding the standard deviation of the observed interannul SAT variability and the across-model standard deviation. Spatially, the largest inter-model variance of the annual mean SAT is found over the North Pole, Greenland Sea, Barents Sea and Baffin Bay. Seasonally, a large spread of the simulated SAT among the models is found in winter. The models show interannual variability and decadal trend of various amplitudes, and can not capture the observed dominant SAT mode variability and cooling trend in winter. Further discussions of the possible attributions to the identified SAT errors for some models suggest that the model's performance in the sea ice simulation is an important factor.