We analysed a strain collection representative of the overall Neisseria meningitidis population circulating in an open community (46000 inhabitants, Spain) during an endemic period (30 isolates from patients and 191 from throat cultures of healthy individuals) by both phenotypic and molecular techniques. Almost all patient isolates were assigned to three hyper-virulent lineages (ET-5 complex, ET-37 complex and cluster A4) by both multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MEE) and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). In contrast, MEE and PFGE assigned 20% and 15% respectively of carrier isolates to the hyper-virulent clones (4% for both methods together). There was also a higher correlation between PFGE and phenotypes associated with virulent clones. These notable differences between the two molecular methods were further observed in more than half the carrier isolates, suggesting that the associations between these strains were distorted by recombination events. However, almost one-third of total endemic strains from symptom-free carriers and almost all patient strains belonged to clones defined by MEE and PFGE, with no known epidemiological connection. These data indicate low transmission and a weak clonal structure for N. meningitidis.