BACKGROUND: African-Caribbean patients have less desirable routes of entry into the psychiatric services than other ethnic groups in Britain but this may not apply to the first contact with services. METHODS: Patients' pathways to care, type of admission or referral and sectioning details were recorded for all first contact patients presenting to south London psychiatric services over a 2-year period. We also conducted a retrospective analysis of data from the Camberwell Register, comparing rates of compulsory admission between 'Whites' and 'African-Caribbeans' for first and readmissions, over a 20-year period. RESULTS: Our first contact sample comprised 38 White, 38 African-Caribbean and 24 Asian patients with CATEGO defined broad schizophrenia. GP referral was found to be the most common mode of contact and there were no significant differences between the ethnic groups with regard to compulsory admission. Similarly, data from the Camberwell Register showed no significant difference in rates of compulsory admission between first admission White and African-Caribbean patients. However, when all readmissions were examined, African-Caribbeans were more likely to be admitted involuntarily. CONCLUSIONS: Our findings suggest that reports of less desirable routes of entry for African-Caribbean patients into the psychiatric service do not apply to their first admission but are likely to develop over time and repeated contact with the services.