DNA sequencing and molecular phylogenetics are increasingly being used in virology laboratories to study the transmission of viruses. By reconstructing the evolutionary history of viral genomes the behaviour of viral populations can be modelled, and the future of epidemics may be forecast. The manner in which such viral DNA sequences are analysed is the focus of this review. Many researchers resort to the often-quoted 'black box' approach because phylogenetics theory can be daunting, and phylogenetics software packages can appear to be difficult to use. However, because phylogenetic analyses are often used in important and sensitive arenas, for example to provide evidence indicating transmission between persons, it is vital that appropriate care is taken to estimate reliably true relationships. In this review, we discuss how a molecular phylogenetics study should be approached, give an overview of the methods and programs for analysing DNA sequence data, and point readers to appropriate texts for further details. The aim of this review, therefore, is to provide researchers with an easy to understand guide to molecular phylogenetics, with special reference to viral genomes. Copyright (C) 2002 John Wiley Sons, Ltd.