Objectives. The aim of the present study was to describe, using a national census, the characteristics of rural general practices and compare these with city and town general practices.Methods. A previously piloted, anonymous but linked, questionnaire was issued to all GPs in Ireland. A liaison network covering the country was developed to increase the response rate. Respondents were asked to designate the location of their main surgery as being city (>20 000 population), town (>5000) or rural (<5000). Each responding practice was asked to nominate one partner to complete a specific section on practice information.Results. Completed individual questionnaires were returned from 2093 GPs (86% response rate). Information on 1429 practice centres was provided; 488 (34%) of these were designated as city, 405 (28%) as town and 536 (38%) as rural. Rural practices reported fewer private patients (P < 0.001) and more socio-economically deprived patients (P < 0.001) than those in towns or cities. The mean number (SD) of total scheduled hours per average week per GP was 77.95 (37.0) for city practices, 80.6 (35.9) for town and 103.6 (39.0) for rural (P < 0.001). Rural practices are more likely, in comparison with those in cities and towns, to have attached staff working from purpose-built premises which are publicly owned. Rural practices also have more contacts with members of the primary care team such as Public Health Nurses, and the quality of these contacts is described more positively. The range of available services is broadly similar, with emergency medical equipment being available more frequently in rural practices.Conclusion. This study suggests that rural practitioners and their practices differ from their urban counterparts in many important aspects. Consideration should be given to the development of formal under- and postgraduate rural general practice programmes to prepare new, and continue to enthuse present, rural GPs.