Aim. This paper is a report of an international study of patients’ and nurses’ perceptions of nurse caring behaviours. Background. Current economic constraints on healthcare systems, demand to increase the quality of care and the incorporation of the consumers’ perspective into care, have created a need to develop a clear understanding of nursing behaviours which convey caring. Patients in different areas of the world report different expectations of nurses’ caring actions when compared to nurses’ views. Method. A descriptive comparative survey design was used to analyse a sample of surgical patients (n = 1659) and their nurses (n = 1195) in 88 wards of 34 hospitals in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Hungary and Italy. Data were collected in autumn 2009 using the Caring Behaviours Inventory-24. Nurses’ and patients’ responses were compared using both inferential and descriptive statistics. Results. Independent samples t-tests showed important differences between nurses’ and patients’ views. Although both groups perceived knowledge and skill as being the most important sub-scale, the nurses’ responses were higher compared to patients (P < 0·05) with important differences in the ‘assurance of human presence’ (P < 0·001) and the ‘respectful deference to others’ (P < 0·001) sub-scales. Cross-country comparisons showed important differences between the nurses’ (F = 24·199, P < 0·001) and patients’ views on caring (F = 26·945, P < 0·001). Conclusions. Important differences were observed between patient–nurse perceptions in the participating countries. The results form a foundation for future research into the development of a common international perspective about caring behaviours between patients and their nurses.