Abstract The adsorption of humic acid (HA) by powdered activated carbon (PAC) in saline waters has been examined in the absence and presence of metal salt coagulants. The study showed that adsorption of HA by PAC can be significantly greater in saline water compared to freshwater and low conductivity water. An optimal adsorption was attained at saline concentrations corresponding to synthetic seawater diluted to 12.5–25% of its original concentration. In undiluted synthetic seawater the adsorption of HA from solution by PAC was comparable with that of local tap water in terms of initial adsorption rate and total removal. The enhanced adsorption is believed to be a combination of reduced electrostatic repulsion between the HA and PAC at high salt concentrations, and chemisorption due to chemical bonding between the functional groups. The effects of adding a metal salt coagulant, either aluminium sulphate or ferric chloride, on overall HA removal were found to depend strongly on the coagulant dose, solution pH and the sequence of addition of the PAC and metal salt coagulant. Addition of the PAC shortly before the coagulant was found to give the greatest removal of HA.