Many isolates of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are indistinguishable when compared using the standard pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) typing method. This may present a problem when investigating local outbreaks of MRSA transmission in a healthcare setting. It also impedes investigation of the widely disseminated community-acquired MRSA (USA 300-0114) in the inpatient setting, which is displacing other traditional hospital-acquired PFGE types. Combination of methods, including multiple-locus sequence typing (MLST), spa typing and staphylococcal cassette chromosome mec (SCCmec) typing, have been used with, or in place of, PFGE to characterise MRSA for epidemiological purposes. These methods are technically challenging, time-consuming and expensive and are rarely feasible except in large laboratories in tertiary care medical centres. Another method, which is simpler and with faster turnaround time, is multiple-locus variable-number tandem-repeat analysis (MLVA). We investigated the utility of MLVA to distinguish common PFGE types. The results suggest that MLVA can be used to identify unrelated strains with identical PFGE patterns or confirm close genetic composition of linked isolates. MLVA could potentially be used in conjunction with PFGE to validate relationships, but further prospective evaluation of these relationships will be required in order to define the proper role, if any, for use of this method in hospital epidemiology. © 2009 The Hospital Infection Society.