Objectives To explore ethnic differences in gestational weight gain (GWG). Methods This was a population-based cohort study conducted in primary care child health clinics in Groruddalen, Oslo, Norway. Participants were healthy pregnant women (n = 632) categorised to six ethnic groups (43 % were Western European women, the reference group). Body weight was measured at 15 and 28 weeks' gestation on average. Data on pre-pregnancy weight and total GWG until delivery were self-reported. The main method of analysis was linear regression adjusting for age, weeks' gestation, pre-pregnancy body mass index, education and severe nausea. Results No ethnic differences were observed in GWG by 15 weeks' gestation. By 28 weeks' gestation, Eastern European women had gained 2.71 kg (95 % confidence interval, CI 1.10-4.33) and Middle Eastern women 1.32 kg (95 % CI 0.14-2.50) more weight on average than the Western European women in the fully adjusted model. Among Eastern European women, the total adjusted GWG was 3.47 kg (95 % CI 1.33-5.61) above the reference group. Other ethnic groups (South Asian, East Asian and African) did not differ from the reference group. When including non-smokers (n = 522) only, observed between-group differences increased and Middle Eastern women gained more weight than the reference group by all time points. Conclusions Eastern European and Middle Eastern women had higher GWG on average than Western European women, especially among the non-smokers. Although prevention of excessive GWG is important for all pregnant women, these ethnic groups might need special attention during pregnancy.