Abstract Aim This work describes the human papillomavirus (HPV) prevalence and the HPV type distribution in a large series of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) grades 2/3 and vaginal cancer worldwide. Methods We analysed 189 VAIN 2/3 and 408 invasive vaginal cancer cases collected from 31 countries from 1986 to 2011. After histopathological evaluation of sectioned formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded samples, HPV DNA detection and typing was performed using the SPF-10/DNA enzyme immunoassay (DEIA)/LiPA25 system (version 1). A subset of 146 vaginal cancers was tested for p16INK4a expression, a cellular surrogate marker for HPV transformation. Prevalence ratios were estimated using multivariate Poisson regression with robust variance. Results HPV DNA was detected in 74% (95% confidence interval (CI): 70–78%) of invasive cancers and in 96% (95% CI: 92–98%) of VAIN 2/3. Among cancers, the highest detection rates were observed in warty-basaloid subtype of squamous cell carcinomas, and in younger ages. Concerning the type-specific distribution, HPV16 was the most frequently type detected in both precancerous and cancerous lesions (59%). p16INK4a overexpression was found in 87% of HPV DNA positive vaginal cancer cases. Conclusions HPV was identified in a large proportion of invasive vaginal cancers and in almost all VAIN 2/3. HPV16 was the most common type detected. A large impact in the reduction of the burden of vaginal neoplastic lesions is expected among vaccinated cohorts.