Bacteriuria, or the presence of bacteria in urine, is associated with both asymptomatic and symptomatic urinary tract infection and underpins much of the dynamic of microbial colonization of the urinary tract. The prevalence of bacteriuria in dissimilar patient groups such as healthy adults, institutionalized elderly, pregnant women, and immune-compromised patients varies widely. In addition, assessing the importance of 'significant bacteriuria' in infected individuals represents a diagnostic challenge, partly due to various causal microorganisms, and requires careful consideration of the distinct etiologies of bacteriuria in different populations and circumstances. Recent molecular discoveries have revealed how some bacterial traits can enable organisms to grow in human urine, which, as a fitness adaptation, is likely to influence the progression of bacteriuria in some individuals. In this review, we comprehensively analyze currently available data on the prevalence of causal organisms with a focus on asymptomatic bacteriuria in dissimilar populations. We evaluate recent advances in the molecular detection of bacteriuria from a diagnostic viewpoint and briefly discuss the potential benefits and some of the challenges of these approaches. Overall, this review provides an update on the comparative prevalence and etiology of bacteriuria from both microbiological and clinical perspectives. © 2013 Federation of European Microbiological Societies Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.