The oncogenic potential of human papillomaviruses (HPV) is well known in the context of cervical carcinoma; however, their role in the development of oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is less clear. We aimed to determine the extent of the association between HPV infection and OSCC. A comprehensive literature search found 132 studies addressing HPV and OSCC in human cases, and a meta-analysis was performed using a random-effects model. There was evidence of an increased risk of OSCC in patients with HPV infection [odds ratio (OR) 2·69, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2·05–3·54]. The prevalence of HPV in OSCC was found to be 24·8%. There was an increased risk associated with HPV-16 infection (OR 2·35, 95% CI 1·73–3·19). Subgroup analyses showed geographical variance, with Asia (OR 2·94, 95% CI 2·16–4·00), and particularly China (OR 2·85, 95% CI 2·05–3·96) being high-risk areas. Our results confirm an increase in HPV infection in OSCC cases.