Abstract Alterations in p53 tumour suppressor gene and its expression may be implicated in the pathogenesis of betel- and tobacco-related oral cancer. There is wide regional variation in betel- and tobacco-consuming habits in different parts of the Indian subcontinent. The purpose of this study was to determine the correlations between p53 gene mutations, protein accumulation and serum antibodies in oral precancer and cancer. We analysed 30 potentially malignant oral lesions (leukoplakia) and 30 oral squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) from northern India because the betel quid-consuming habits are different from those prevalent in other regions of India. p53 mutations were analysed by polymerase chain reaction amplification of genomic DNA and direct sequencing, p53 protein accumulation by immunohistochemical analysis and circulating p53 antibodies by ELISA. p53 gene mutations, analysed within exons 5–9, were observed in five out of 30 (17%) potentially malignant oral lesions and seven out of 30 (23%) oral SCCs. All the mutations were base substitution mutations. Three missense and two nonsense mutations were observed in potentially malignant oral lesions, while six missense and one nonsense mutations were identified in oral SCCs. The probable hot spots for the mutations were identified at codons 126, 136 and 174, which have not been observed thus far. A good correlation was observed between p53 missense mutation, p53 antibodies and p53 protein accumulation in matched potentially malignant and malignant oral lesions. All the potentially malignant and cancerous lesions harbouring missense mutations showed accumulation of p53 protein and the majority of these patients showed circulating p53 antibodies suggesting that serological detection of p53 antibodies may serve as a surrogate marker for p53 alterations in oral lesions.