The potential natural vegetation (PNV) distribution is required for several studies in environmental sciences. Most of the available databases are quite subjective or depend on vegetation models. We have built a new high-resolution world-wide PNV map using a objective statistical methodology based on multinomial logistic models. Our method appears as a fast and robust alternative in vegetation modelling, independent of any vegetation model. In comparison with other databases, our method provides a realistic PNV distribution in agreement with respect to BIOME 6000 data. Among several advantages, the use of probabilities allows us to estimate the uncertainty, bringing some confidence in the modelled PNV, or to highlight the regions needing some data to improve the PNV modelling. Despite our PNV map being highly dependent on the distribution of data points, it is easily updatable as soon as additional data are available and provides very useful additional information for further applications. © 2012 IOP Publishing Ltd.