Screening for anaemia in pregnancy is essential for implementing and monitoring effective antenatal programmes. We compared the diagnostic accuracy of invasive and non-invasive screening methods in a cross-sectional survey of 403 pregnant women attending an urban health centre in Awassa, southern Ethiopia. Overall anaemia prevalence [haemoglobin (Hb): <11 g/dl] was 15.1% (95% CI: 12.1–19.9), mild anaemia (Hb: 10–10.9 g/dl) 10.4%, moderate anaemia (Hb: 7–9.9 g/dl) 4.2% and severe anaemia (Hb < 7 g/dl) 0.3%. Sensitivity, specificity and predictive values of conjunctival pallor and the WHO Hb colour scale were calculated for Hb cut-off points <11, <10 and <9 g/dl. All methods in combination with the symptoms and complaints reported by the mothers were entered into a predictive scoring system. None of the methods tested or models predicted anaemia with suitable accuracy in this population. The diagnosis of anaemia based on clinical signs and symptoms remains unreliable despite attempts to develop predictive models.