BACKGROUND An increasing incidence of disease caused by nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) is being reported. The purpose of this study was to determine the isolation rates of NTM from various clinical specimens, and their antimicrobial susceptibility patterns, over a 4-year period in Shanghai. METHODS All NTM isolated between 2005 and 2008 at Shanghai Pulmonary Hospital, a key laboratory of mycobacteria tuberculosis in Shanghai, China, were identified with conventional biochemical tests and 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Antimicrobial susceptibility for all NTM was determined using the BACTEC MGIT 960 system. RESULTS A total of 21,221 specimens were cultured, of which 4868 (22.94%) grew acid fast bacilli (AFB), and 248 (5.09%) of the AFB were NTM. The prevalence rate of NTM was determined as 4.26%, 4.70%, 4.96% and 6.38% among mycobacteria culture positive samples in years 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively. These data indicated that the prevalence rate has continuously increased. Sixteen different species of NTM were identified, the most commonly encountered NTM in Shanghai were M. chelonae (26.7%), followed by M. fortuitum (15.4%), M. kansasii (14.2%), M. avium-intracellulare complex (13.1%) and M. terrae (6.9%). The rare species identified were M. marinum, M. gastri, M. triviale, M. ulcerans, M. smegmatis, M. phlci, M. gordonae, M. szulgai, M. simiae, M. scrofulaceum and M. xenopi. The five most commonly identified NTM species showed high drug resistance to general anti-tuberculosis drugs, particularly, M. chelonae and M. fortuitum appear to be multi-drug resistance. CONCLUSIONS The prevalence of NTM in Shanghai showed a tendency to increase over the course of the study. The five most commonly isolated NTM species showed high drug resistance to first line anti-tuberculosis drugs.