This study investigates the variations by older people's socio-economic status (SES) (i.e. educational level and social class) in the use of informal and formal help from outside the household in Great Britain, Italy, Belgium and The Netherlands. In all these countries, it was older people in low SES groups who mostly used such help. Multinomial logistic regression analyses showed that, in each country and for both types of help, there were SES gradients in the utilisation of both formal and informal care, and that differences in age, health and marital status largely accounted for the former but not the latter. Cross-national differences in the use of both informal and formal help remained when variations in sex, age, SES, health, marital status, home ownership and the use of privately-paid help were taken into account. Significant interaction effects were found, which indicated that older people in low SES groups in Great Britain and The Netherlands had higher odds of using informal help from outside the household than their counterparts in Italy, and similarly that those in The Netherlands were more likely to use formal help than their Italian peers. The results are discussed in relation to the cultural differences and variations in the availability of formal services among the countries. © 2006 Cambridge University Press.