Sleep is highly altered during affective episodes in patients with bipolar disorder. There is accumulating evidence that sleep is also altered in euthymic states. A deficit in sleep regulation may be a vulnerability factor with aetiological relevance in the development of the disease. This study aims to explore the objective, subjective and lifetime sleep characteristics of patients with manifest bipolar disorder and persons with an elevated risk of developing the disease. Twenty-two patients with bipolar I and II disorder, nine persons with an elevated risk of developing the disorder and 28 healthy controls were evaluated with a structured interview to characterize subjective and lifetime sleeping habits. In addition, participants wore an actimeter for six nights. Patients with bipolar disorder had longer sleep latency and duration compared with healthy controls as determined by actigraphy. The subjective and lifetime sleep characteristics of bipolar patients differed significantly from healthy controls. The results of participants with an elevated risk of developing the disorder had subjective and lifetime characteristics that were largely analogous to those of patients with manifest bipolar disorder. In particular, both groups described recurring insomnia and hypersomnia, sensitivity to shifts in circadian rhythm, difficulties awakening and prolonged sleep latency. This study provides further evidence that sleep and circadian timing are profoundly altered in patients with bipolar disorder. It may also tentatively suggest that sleep may be altered prior to the first manic episode in subjects at high risk.