Background: In Taiwan, a distinct ethnic group variation in incidence and mortality rates has been suggested for most carcinomas. Our aim is to identify the role of prognostic factors associated with the survival of oral and pharyngeal carcinoma in Taiwan. Methods: Taiwan Cancer Registry records of 9039 subjects diagnosed with oral and pharyngeal carcinoma were analyzed. The population was divided into three ethnic groups by residence, which were Taiwanese aborigines, Hakka and Hokkien communities. Five-year survival rates were estimated by Kaplan-Meier methods. Ethnic curves differed significantly by log-rank test; therefore separate models for Taiwanese aborigines, Hakka and Hokkien were carried out. The Cox multivariate proportional hazards model was used to examine the role of prognostic factors on ethnic survival. Results: The five-year survival rates of oral and pharyngeal carcinoma were significantly poorer for Hokkien community (53.9%) and Taiwanese aborigines community (58.1%) compared with Hakka community (60.5%). The adjusted hazard ratio of Taiwanese aborigines versus Hakka was 1.07 (95%CI, 0.86–1.33) for oral and pharyngeal carcinoma mortality, and 1.16 (95%CI, 1.01–1.33) for Hokkien versus Hakka. Males had significantly poor prognosis than females. Subjects with tongue and/or mouth carcinoma presented the worst prognosis, whereas lip carcinoma had the best prognosis. Subjects with verrucous carcinoma had better survival than squamous cell carcinoma. Prognosis was the worst in elderly subjects, and subjects who underwent surgery had the highest survival rate. Conclusion: Our study presented that predictive variables in oral and pharyngeal carcinoma survival have been: ethnic groups, period of diagnosis, gender, diagnostic age, anatomic site, morphologic type, and therapy. Published: 15 June 2007 BMC Cancer 2007, 7:101 doi:10.1186/1471-2407-7-101 Received: 3 November 2006 Accepted: 15 June 2007 This article is available from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2407/7/101 © 2007 Chen et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.