An adequate vitamin D status is essential during childhood and adolescence, for its important role in cell growth, skeletal structure and development. It also reduces the risk of conditions such as CVD, osteoporosis, diabetes mellitus, infections and autoimmune disease. As comparable data on the European level are lacking, assessment of vitamin D concentrations was included in the Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence (HELENA) study. Fasting blood samples were obtained from a subsample of 1006 adolescents (470 males; 46·8 %) with an age range of 12·5–17·5 years, selected in the ten HELENA cities in the nine European countries participating in this cross-sectional study, and analysed for 25-hydroxycholecalciferol (25(OH)D) by ELISA using EDTA plasma. As specific reference values for adolescents are missing, percentile distribution were computed by age and sex. Median 25(OH)D levels for the whole population were 57·1 nmol/l (5th percentile 24·3 nmol/l, 95th percentile 99·05 nmol/l). Vitamin D status was classified into four groups according to international guidelines (sufficiency/optimal levels ≥ 75 nmol/l; insufficiency 50–75 nmol/l; deficiency 27·5–49·99 nmol/l and severe deficiency < 27·5 nmol/l). About 80 % of the sample had suboptimal levels (39 % had insufficient, 27 % deficient and 15 % severely deficient levels). Vitamin D concentrations increased with age (P < 0·01) and tended to decrease according to BMI. Geographical differences were also identified. Our study results indicate that vitamin D deficiency is a highly prevalent condition in European adolescents and should be a matter of concern for public health authorities.