Estimates of the prevalence of visual impairment caused by uncorrected refractive errors in 2004 have been determined at regional and global levels for people aged 5 years and over from recent published and unpublished surveys. The estimates were based on the prevalence of visual acuity of less than 6/18 in the better eye with the currently available refractive correction that could be improved to equal to or better than 6/18 by refraction or pinhole. A total of 153 million people (range of uncertainty: 123 million to 184 million) are estimated to be visually impaired from uncorrected refractive errors, of whom eight million are blind. This cause of visual impairment has been overlooked in previous estimates that were based on best-corrected vision. Combined with the 161 million people visually impaired estimated in 2002 according to best-corrected vision, 314 million people are visually impaired from all causes: uncorrected refractive errors become the main cause of low vision and the second cause of blindness. Uncorrected refractive errors can hamper performance at school, reduce employability and productivity, and generally impair quality of life. Yet the correction of refractive errors with appropriate spectacles is among the most cost-effective interventions in eye health care. The results presented in this paper help to unearth a formerly hidden problem of public health dimensions and promote policy development and implementation, programmatic decision-making and corrective interventions, as well as stimulate research.