More than 2 million people worldwide are being treated for end-stage kidney disease (ESKD). This Series paper provides an overview of incidence, modality use (in-centre haemodialysis, home dialysis, or transplantation), and mortality for patients with ESKD based on national registry data. We also present data from an international cohort study to highlight differences in haemodialysis practices that affect survival and the experience of patients who rely on this therapy, which is both life-sustaining and profoundly disruptive to their quality of life. Data illustrate disparities in access to renal replacement therapy of any kind and in the use of transplantation or home dialysis, both of which are widely considered preferable to in-centre haemodialysis for many patients with ESKD in settings where infrastructure permits. For most patients with ESKD worldwide who are treated with in-centre haemodialysis, overall survival is poor, but longer in some Asian countries than elsewhere in the world, and longer in Europe than in the USA, although this gap has reduced. Commendable haemodialysis practice includes exceptionally high use of surgical vascular access in Japan and in some European countries, and the use of longer or more frequent dialysis sessions in some countries, allowing for more effective volume management. Mortality is especially high soon after ESKD onset, and improved preparation for ESKD is needed including alignment of decision making with the wishes of patients and families.