Abstract The esterification of oleic acid in subcritical methanol catalyzed by zinc acetate was investigated in a batch-type autoclave. The effect of reaction conditions such as temperature, pressure, reaction time and molar ratio of oleic acid to methanol on the esterification was examined. The oleic acid conversion reached 95.0% under 220 °C and 6.0 MPa with the molar ratio of methanol to oleic acid being 4 and 1.0 wt% zinc acetate as catalyst. A kinetic model for the esterification was established. By fitting the kinetic model with the experimental results, the reaction order n = 2.2 and activation energy E a = 32.62 KJ/mol were obtained.