The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a ubiquitous human herpesvirus originally described in cultured lymphoblasts from African Burkitt's lymphoma, is the causative agent of infectious mononucleosis, but appears to be involved in the pathogenesis of a variety of diseases. EBV has the ability to establish lifelong persistent infection, where only a restricted pattern of the viral proteins is expressed. Periodic reactivation of EBV occurs, where mature EBV particles are produced. Strain variation is potentially important in the biology and epidemiology of EBV, and in attempts to relate EBV to associated diseases. Analysis of the EBV genomes isolated from patients with EBV-associated diseases and from various parts of the world has so far failed to identify conclusive disease-specific viral subtypes. This review focuses on the different strategies which have been used for strain characterization or subtyping of EBV.