BACKGROUND: Immigrant elderly are a rapidly growing group in Dutch society; little is known about their health care use. This study assesses whether ethnic disparities in health care use exist and how they can be explained. Applying an established health care access model as explanatory factors, we tested health and socio-economic status, and in view of our research population we added an acculturation variable, elaborated into several sub-domains. METHODS: Cross-sectional study using data from the "Social Position, Health and Well-being of Elderly Immigrants" survey, conducted in 2003 in the Netherlands. The study population consisted of first generation immigrants aged 55 years and older from the four major immigrant populations in the Netherlands and a native Dutch reference group. The average response rate to the survey was 46% (1503/3284; country of origin: Turkey n = 307, Morocco n = 284, Surinam n = 308, the Netherlands Antilles n = 300, the Netherlands n = 304). RESULTS: High ethnic disparities exist in health and health care utilisation. Immigrant elderly show a higher use of GP services and lower use of physical therapy and home care. Both self-reported health status (need factor) and language competence (part of acculturation) have high explanatory power for all types of health services utilisation; the additional impact of socio-economic status and education is low. CONCLUSION: For all health services, health disparities among all four major immigrant groups in the Netherlands translate into utilisation disparities, aggravated by lack of language competence. The resulting pattern of systematic lower health services utilisation of elderly immigrants is a challenge for health care providers and policy makers.