BACKGROUND Although metallic stents remain patent longer than plastic stents, the optimal palliation of inoperable malignant biliary strictures remains controversial because of the high cost of metallic stents and short patient survival. METHODS A total of 101 patients (mean age 72.5+/-12.9 years) with malignant strictures of the common bile duct were included in this study, after three exclusions for technical failure (n = 3) and one for noncompliance with study design. The etiology of the strictures included pancreatic cancer (65), cholangiocarcinoma (21), ampullary tumor (3), and metastatic lymph nodes (12). Patients were randomized to receive either an 11.5F polyethylene stent to be exchanged in case of dysfunction (group 1, n = 33), an 11.5F stent to be exchanged every 3 months (group 2, n = 34), or a self-expanding metallic Wallstent (group 3, n = 34). RESULTS Endoscopic procedures were successful (including complete relief of jaundice) in 97.1 % of cases. Procedure-related morbidity was 11.9%, and mortality was 2.9%. Bilirubinemia after 48 hours (37.2%+/-21.7% decrease from the preoperative level) did not differ between groups. Patients were followed for a mean of 166 days (median 143, range 0 to 596 days). Overall survivals were not different between groups, but complication-free survival for groups 2 and 3 was longer than that of group 1 (p < 0.05). Cumulated hospital days were 7.4+/-1.5, 10.6+/-1.7, and 5.5+/-1.4 (groups 1, 2, and 3, respectively) (p < 0.05; analysis of variance). Cost analysis showed that metallic stents were advantageous in patients surviving more than 6 months, whereas a plastic stent was advantageous in patients surviving 6 months or less. CONCLUSIONS Metallic stents and plastic stents exchanged every 3 months are valuable alternatives for increasing complication-free survival in patients with malignant strictures of the common bile duct. Metal stents are advantageous in patients with the longest life expectancy.