We aimed to investigate the prevalence and associated factors of HSV-2 discordance and concordance in HIV-1-discordant couples. This study used the baseline data from a cohort study of HIV-1-discordant couples in Dehong prefecture of Yunnan province, China. Of 954 participating couples, 42·4% were affected by HSV-2, of which 20·4% were HSV-2-concordant positive, 7·6% were HSV-2-discordant where the male was HSV-2 positive, and 14·4% were HSV-2 discordant where the female was HSV-2 positive. Compared to HSV-2-negative concordance, HSV-2 discordance with an HSV-2-positive male spouse was significantly associated with characteristics of the male spouse, including Han ethnicity and being in a second marriage. HSV-2 discordance with an HSV-2-positive female spouse was significantly associated with characteristics of the female spouse, including Han ethnicity, having engaged in commercial sex, having a sexual relationship of <3 years and being HIV-1 infected. Compared to HSV-2 discordance, HSV-2-positive concordance was significantly associated with an education level of middle school or higher for both spouses, a sexual relationship of ⩾3 years, more frequent sex and having an HIV-1-infected male spouse. The findings highlight the need for HSV-2 prevention and treatment efforts to reduce HSV-2 transmission in this population, and emphasize the importance of implementing prevention interventions early in couples' relationships.