This article is the first of the educational series ‘Assessing tuberculosis (TB) prevalence through population-based surveys’. The series will give overall guidance in conducting cross-sectional surveys of pulmonary TB (PTB) disease. TB prevalence surveys are most valuable in areas where notification data obtained through routine surveillance are of unproven accuracy or incomplete, and in areas with an estimated prevalence of bacteriologically confirmed TB of more than 100 per 100,000 population. To embark on a TB prevalence survey requires commitment from the national TB programme, compliance in the study population, plus availability of trained staff and financial resources. The primary objective of TB prevalence surveys is to determine the prevalence of PTB in the general population aged textgreateror=15 years. Limitations of TB prevalence surveys are their inability to assess regional or geographic differences in prevalence of TB, estimate the burden of childhood TB or estimate the prevalence of extra-pulmonary TB. The cost of a prevalence survey is typically US$ 4-15 per person surveyed, and up to US$ 25 per person with radiographic screening. A survey of 50,000 people, of limited precision, would typically cost US$ 200,000-1,250,000.