BACKGROUND Before implementing a new oral health promotion program in the French overseas territory of Nouvelle Calédonie, the health authorities needed recent data about dental status of the New Caledonian child population. OBJECTIVES This study aimed to describe the dental status of 6, 9 and 12-yr-old New Caledonian children and to investigate the environmental and behavioural risk factors related to oral health. METHODS A randomly selected sample of 2734 children (744 6-yr-olds, 789 9-yr-olds, and 1201 12-yr-olds) was examined clinically by seven calibrated investigators and participants responded to a questionnaire. The main variables were objective criteria about dental status and subjective criteria about experience of dental care, dental fear, self-perception of oral health, cultural or ethnic identity and environmental and behavioural risk factors. RESULTS Overall, most of the children had infectious oral diseases: more than 50% had gingivitis, and 60% of 6- and 9 yr-olds had at least one deciduous or permanent tooth with untreated caries. The mean 12-yr-old number of decayed missing and filled teeth (DMFT) was 2.09±2.82. The number of carious lesions was related to the unfavourable lifestyle, deprived social status and no preventive dental care. Kanak, Polynesians and Caledonians (respectively 27%, 18% and 45% of the study sample) were more affected by caries than metropolitan French and Asian children. Children with many untreated carious lesions had negative perceptions of their oral health; they complained of chewing difficulty and had higher scores for dental anxiety. CONCLUSION This study highlights the need for new strategies aimed at improving oral health and at reducing inequalities in New Caledonia. An oral health promotion program would need to be developed in connection with other health programmes using the common risk factor approach within the context of the local environment.