Nonmelanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is the most common cancer affecting white-skinned individuals and the incidence is increasing worldwide. This systematic review brings together 75 studies conducted over the past half century to look at geographical variations and trends worldwide in NMSC, and specifically incidence data are compared with recent U.K. cancer registry data. Following the development of a comprehensive search strategy, an assessment tool was adapted to look at the methodological quality of the eligible studies. Most of the studies focused on white populations in Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia; however, limited data were available for other skin types in regions such as Africa. Worldwide the incidence for NMSC varies widely with the highest rates in Australia [>1000/100, 000 person-years for basal cell carcinoma (BCC)] and the lowest rates in parts of Africa (< 1/100, 000 person-years for BCC). The average incidence rates in England were 76·21/100, 000 person-years and 22·65/100, 000 person-years for BCC and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), respectively, with highest rates in the South-West of England (121·29/100, 000 person-years for BCC and 33·02/100, 000 person-years for SCC) and lowest rates by far in London (0·24/100, 000 person-years for BCC and 14·98/100, 000 person-years for SCC). The incidence rates in the U.K. appear to be increasing at a greater rate when compared with the rest of Europe. NMSC is an increasing problem for health care services worldwide. This review highlights a requirement for prevention studies in this area and the issues surrounding incomplete NMSC registration. Registration standards of NMSC should be improved to the level of other invasive disease. © 2012 The Authors. BJD © 2012 British Association of Dermatologists.