Abstract For axisymmetric structures, a semi-analytical technique based on Fourier series has been previously proposed to avoid full three-dimensional non-linear calculations. The object of this paper is to define the validity of this method for piles under lateral loads using experimental data. In order to show the practical advantages of this technique, it is compared with full 3-D finite element analyses. To take into account various deformation modes along the pile-soil interfaces (slipping, debonding13.), joint elements have been introduced into the semi-analytical technique. Comparisons between the different kinds of FE calculations and experimental measures are present. The sensitivity of the semi-analytical predictions according to the number of harmonics has also been investigated.