In March 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert recommending active worldwide surveillance for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This paper describes the epidemiological features of cases reported by Australian states and territories to the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing between 17 March and 31 July 2003. There were 138 people investigated for SARS: 111 as suspect and 27 as probable. Five probable cases were reported to WHO after review of other possible diagnoses and Australia-specific exclusion criteria had been applied. An additional probable case identified by laboratory testing overseas, but who was not under investigation when in Australia, was also reported to WHO. The method by which surveillance for SARS was rapidly established provided an opportunity to examine Australia's planning and preparedness for future respiratory disease epidemics such as influenza.