Background. Prior to the introduction of the 2006 NHS dental contract in England and Wales, general dental practitioners (GDPs) were responsible for the provision of out-of-hours (OOH) emergency dental services (EDS); however there was great national variation in service provision. Under the contractual arrangements introduced 1stApril 2006, local commissioning agencies became formally responsible for the provision of out-of-hours emergency dental services. This study aimed to examine patients' use of an out-of-hours emergency dental service and to determine whether the introduction of the 2006 national NHS dental contract had resulted in a change in service use, with a view to informing future planning and commissioning of care. Methods. A questionnaire was administered to people attending the out-of-hours emergency dental service at two inner city London hospitals over two time periods; four weeks before and six months after the introduction of the dental contract in April 2006. The questionnaire explored: reasons for attending; dental registration status and attendance; method of access; knowledge and use of NHS Direct; satisfaction with the service; future preferences for access and use of out-of-hours dental services. Data were compared to determine any impact of the new contract on how and why people accessed the emergency dental service. Results. The response rate was 73% of attendees with 981 respondents for the first time period and 546 for the second. There were no significant differences between the two time periods in the gender, age, ethnic distribution or main language of service users accessing the service. Overall, the main dental problem was toothache (72%) and the main reason for choosing this service was due to the inability to access another emergency dental service (42%). Significantly fewer service users attended the out-of-hours emergency dental service during the second period because they could not get an appointment with their own dentist (p = 0.002 from 28% to 20%) and significantly more service users in the second period felt the emergency dental service was easier to get to than their own dentist (P = 0.003 from 8% to 14%). Service users found out about the service from multiple sources, of which family and friends were the most common source (30%). In the second period fewer service users were obtaining information about the service from dental receptionists (P = 0.002 from 14% to 9%) and increased use of NHS Direct for a dental problem was reported (P = 0.002 from 16% to 22%) along with more service users being referred to the service by NHS Direct (P = 0.02 from 19% to 24%). The most common preference for future emergency dental care was face-to-face with a dentist (79%). Conclusion. This study has provided an insight into how and why people use an out-of-hours emergency dental service and has helped to guide future commissioning of these services. Overall, the service was being used in much the same way both before and after the 2006 dental contract. Significantly more use was being made of NHS Direct after April 2006; however, informal information networks such as friends and family remain an important source of information about accessing emergency dental services.