Cross-national comparisons employed welfare state classifications to explain differences in care use in the European older population. Yet these classifications do not cover all care-related societal characteristics and limit our understanding of which specific societal characteristics are most important. Using the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement (second wave, 2006-07), the effect of societal determinants relating to culture, welfare state context and socio-economic and demographic composition on informal and formal care use of older adults in 11 European countries was studied. Multinomial multi-level regression analyses showed that, in addition to individual determinants, societal determinants are salient for understanding care use. In countries with fewer home-based services, less residential care, more informal care support and women working full time, older adults are more likely to receive informal care only. Older adults are more likely to receive only formal home care or a combination of formal and informal care in countries with more extensive welfare state arrangements (i.e. more home-based services, higher pension generosity), whereas the odds of receiving a combination of informal and formal care are also larger in countries that specify a legal obligation to care for parents. We tentatively conclude that the incorporation of societal determinants rather than commonly used welfare state classifications results in more understanding of the societal conditions that determine older adults' care use. © 2011 Cambridge University Press.