Abstract Aim To characterize the Australian desert vine flora and to compare it with that of deserts in other continents. Location The Stony Deserts, the Simpson Desert and the four main deserts of Western Australia. Methods The Western Australian Herbarium data base and published papers were used to develop vine checklists for each Australian desert studied. A literature search was used to classify the families and genera into phytogeographical elements and to provide data for intercontinental comparisons. Results Thirty-seven vine species are listed for the six Australian deserts studied. They constitute from 0.8 to 2.7% of the vascular flora, which is within the normal range for arid zone floras. Comparing Australian data with those from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts (North America), for non-vine taxa, very different phylogenetic lines are present. However, for vines, three of the four most important families are the same in each case, viz. Convolvulaceae, Fabaceae and Asclepiadaceae. This reflects large pantropical and cosmopolitan families shared between all three data sets. At the generic level, in Australia pantropical taxa and taxa from the Old World tropics far outnumber endemic ones, as do pantropical and neotropical genera in North America. Herbaceous vines predominate in Australian deserts as they do in North American ones, but nevertheless, the percentage of woody vines is higher in Australia (32%) than in North America (highest value of 24%). Earlier views that Australian deserts are rich in annual vines are not supported. Main conclusions For many life-forms, the Australian flora is composed of very different phylogenetic lines to the floras of other continents. However, for desert vines, at the level of family and even of genus, there are surprising similarities between Australia and even a continent as distant as North America, because of shared pantropical and cosmopolitan taxa.