Unscheduled care (UC) refers to non-routine face-to-face care, such as accident and emergency care, out-of-hours care, or walk-in centres. Current health service policy aims to reduce its use. Unscheduled care is common in people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease. By reviewing qualitative research literature, we aimed to understand the breadth of psychosocial and other influences on UC use in people with long-term conditions. Few qualitative papers specifically address UC in patients in these disease groups. Therefore, our literature search also included qualitative research that explored factors potentially relevant to UC use, including attitudes to healthcare use in general. By searching Medline, Embase, Psycinfo and Cinahl from inception to 2011, we identified 42 papers, published since 1984, describing relevant original research and took a meta-ethnographic approach in reviewing them. The review was conducted between Spring 2009 and April 2011, with a further search in December 2011. Most papers reported on asthma (n = 13) or on multiple or unspecified conditions (n = 12). The most common methods reported were interviews (n = 33) and focus groups (n = 13), and analyses were generally descriptive. Theoretical and ethical background was rarely explicit, but the implicit starting point was generally the ‘problem’ of UC, and health-care, use in general, decontextualised from the lives of the patients using it. Patients’ use of UC emerged as understandable, rational responses to pressing clinical need in situations in which patients thought it the only option. This belief reflected the value that they had learned to attach to UC versus routine care through previous experiences. For socially or economically marginalised patients, UC offered access to clinical or social care that was otherwise unavailable to them.