Background: Data on the duration of major depressive episodes (MDE) in the general population are sparse. Aims: To assess the duration of MDE and its clinical and socio-demographic determinants in a study group drawn from the general population with newly originated episodes of major depression. Method: The Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study is a prospective epidemiological survey in the adult population (n=7076), using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview. Duration of MDE over 2 years was assessed with a Life Chart Interview. Results: The median duration of MDE was 3.0 months; 50% of participants recovered within 3 months, 63% within 6 months, 76% within 12 months and nearly 20% had not recovered at 24 months. Determinants of persistence were severity of depression and comorbid dysthymia. A recurrent episode predicted shorter duration. Conclusions: Although half of those affected with MDE recovered rapidly, the risk of chronicity (duration 24 months or more) was considerable. This underlines the necessity of diagnosing and treating those at risk.