We study the influence of propagation effects on the mean profiles of radio pulsars using the method of wave propagation in inhomogeneous media described by Kravtsov & Orlov. This approach allows us first to take into consideration the transition from geometrical optics to vacuum propagation, the cyclotron absorption and the wave refraction simultaneously. In addition, the non-dipole magnetic field configuration, the drift motion of plasma particles and their realistic energy distribution are taken into account. It is confirmed that, for ordinary pulsars (period P ∼ 1 s, surface magnetic field B0 ∼ 1012 G) and typical plasma generation near the magnetic poles (multiplicity parameter λ = ne/nGJ ∼ 103), the polarization is formed inside the light cylinder at a distance resc ∼ 1000 R from the neutron star, the circular polarization being 5–20 per cent which is in agreement with observational data. A one-to-one correspondence between the signs of circular polarization and position angle (PA) derivative along the profile for both ordinary and extraordinary waves is predicted. Using numerical integration we now can model the mean profiles of radio pulsars. It is shown that the standard S-shape form of the PA swing can be realized for small enough multiplicity λ and large enough bulk Lorentz factor γ only. It is also shown that the value of the maximum derivative of PA, which is often used for determination of the angle between magnetic dipole and rotation axis, depends on the plasma parameters and could differ from the rotation vector model (RVM) prediction.