This study examined prevalence of alcohol dependence symptoms and diagnosis among a nationally representative sample of recent onset adolescent drinkers aged 12-21years (mean 17years) across different levels of drinking drawn from National Survey of Drug Use and Health (N=9490). We assessed whether the relationship between level of alcohol use and alcohol dependence was similar for individuals from different socio-demographic groups (i.e., gender, age group, ethnic group, family income, and substance use in the past year). The most prevalent DSM-IV alcohol dependence criteria at low levels of alcohol use were "unsuccessful efforts to cut down", "tolerance", and "time spent" in activities necessary to obtain alcohol or recover from its effect. Logistic regression with polynomial contrasts indicated increasing rates of each criterion and an overall dependence diagnosis with increasing alcohol exposure that differed most between the lowest levels of recent drinking frequency. After controlling for drinking quantity, younger adolescents, females, Native American/Alaskans and Asian/Pacific Islanders were most likely to experience alcohol dependence symptoms and a diagnosis of dependence, suggesting that these demographic subgroups may experience dependence symptoms or develop dependence more quickly after beginning to drink. Recognizing early symptoms of alcohol dependence may assist in early identification and intervention of those at risk for heavier drinker in the future.