Ciliates are a primary component of the periphyton microfauna and play a crucial role in the functioning of microbial food webs. Seasonal variation in community structures of periphytic ciliate communities was studied, using glass slides as an artificial substratum, during a 1-year cycle (August 2011–July 2012) in coastal waters of the Yellow Sea, northern China. Samples were collected monthly at a depth of 1 m from four sampling stations. A total of 144 ciliate species representing 78 genera, 43 families, 17 orders and eight classes were recorded. Among these species, 31 distributed in all four seasons, while 11, 11, 13 and two forms occurred only in spring, summer, autumn and winter season, respectively. The species number and total abundance peaked in spring and autumn, with minimum values in winter. Ciliate community structures differed significantly between seasons, and were significantly correlated with the changes in environmental variables, especially temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen (DO) and the nutrients. Of 36 dominant species (top 15 ranked contributors in each season), nine (e.g. Pseudovorticella paracratera, Trochilia minuta and Zoothamnium sp.) were significantly correlated with pH, DO or nutrients. Species richness, evenness and diversity measures were significantly correlated with temperature, pH, DO or soluble reactive phosphates. Results demonstrated that periphytic ciliates exhibited a clear seasonal variation in community structures in response to environmental conditions and potentially might be used as a robust bioindicator for assessing environmental quality status in coastal waters.