INTRODUCTION Head and neck tumors can be easily recognized through clinical evaluation. However, they are often diagnosed at advanced stages. OBJECTIVE To evaluate the delay from the patient's initial symptoms to the definitive treatment. METHODS Retrospective study of patients enrolled in 2011 and 2012. A questionnaire was filled in about socioeconomic aspects, patient history, tumor data, professionals who evaluated the patients, and the respective time delays. RESULTS The following time delay medians were observed: ten months between symptom onset and the first consultation; four weeks between the latter and the first consultation with a specialist; four weeks between the specialist consultation and diagnosis attainment; and 12 weeks between diagnosis and the start of treatment. CONCLUSIONS Most head and neck tumors are diagnosed at advanced stages, due to patient and health care factors.