Abstract The influence of the pore size distribution of activated carbon on the adsorption of phenol from aqueous solutions was explored. Activated carbons with different porous structures were prepared by gasifying a bituminous coal char to different extents of burn-off. The results of adsorption experiments show that the phenol capacity of these carbons does not proportionally increase with their BET surface area. This reflects the heterogeneity of the carbon surface for adsorption. The pore size distributions of these carbons, determined according to the Dubinin–Stoeckli equation, were found to vary with the burn-off level. By incorporating the distribution with the Dubinin–Radushkevich equation using an inverse proportionality between the micropore size and the adsorption energy, the isotherms for the adsorption of phenol onto these carbons can be well predicted. The present study has demonstrated that the heterogeneity of carbon surface for the phenol adsorption can be attributed to the different energies required for adsorption in different-size micropores.