Abstract The composition of the upper mantle is of great significance to our understanding of plate tectonics and global evolution. Information about the physical properties of the Earth at upper mantle depths, including lateral variations in electrical conductivity, can be deduced from measurements of the electric and magnetic fields at the Earth's surface. Electromagnetic methods appear to give poorer resolution than do some other methods, for example seismics, but as they are sensitive to quite different properties of a medium they provide a different and complementary class of information. The basic theory of electromagnetic sounding methods is briefly reviewed below, and evidence regarding lateral conductivity inhomogeneities in the Earth's upper mantle is examined. While lateral electrical conductivity inhomogeneities appear to be the rule rather than the exception, the interpretation of electromagnetic data still presents difficulties and the results from many regions are not as yet unambiguous. Where the data are of sufficient resolution, a rapid increase in electrical conductivity can usually be identified within the upper mantle. The depth to this highly conductive zone is different in different tectonic environments, but is broadly consistent between analogous but widely separated tectonic environments. A comparatively shallow conducting region is found beneath the ocean lithosphere. The depth of this region is dependent on lithospheric age. Many of the more shallow conducting regions in both continental and oceanic environments are associated with high heat flow values and seismic low velocity zones. These highly conducting regions may be zones of partial melt.