BACKGROUND: While the use of emergency contraception (EC) is becoming more widespread in Australia, little is known about the reasons for, and the social context of, this use. METHODS: In order to explore the use of EC from the perspective of users, a qualitative study was conducted with women presenting to one of three health care settings in Melbourne, Australia for EC. RESULTS: Thirty-two women ranging in age from 18 to 45 years were interviewed. While a number of themes were discussed with the women, this paper reports on four ‘types of users’ of EC identified from the data. ‘Controllers’ experienced failure of their contraceptive method and were very uncomfortable needing EC. They changed their contraceptive strategy in an attempt to avoid needing EC in the future. ‘Thwarted controllers’ were similar to controllers except that they could not improve their contraceptive strategy due to medical or social limitations. ‘Risk takers’ saw the use of EC as a component of their overall contraceptive strategy. They did not rely on EC regularly, but were comfortable to use it occasionally when the need arose. A final group of women were ‘caught short’ by a sexual experience that was unplanned and therefore they did not manage to use their chosen contraceptive strategy. CONCLUSIONS: The findings from this study challenge the assumptions that are often made about the users of EC and highlight the need to acknowledge the different ways that women make sense of, and make decisions about, contraception.