BACKGROUND: People of low socioeconomic status have worse health and a higher probability of being granted a disability pension than people of high socioeconomic status. It is also known that public and private general physicians and public and private specialists have varying practices for issuing sick leave certificates (which, if longstanding, may become the basis of disability pensions). However, few studies have investigated the influence of a patient's country of birth in this context. METHODS: We used multilevel logistic regression analysis with individuals (first level) nested within countries of birth (second level). We analysed the entire population between the ages of 40 and 64 years (n = 80,212) in the city of Malmo, Sweden, in 2003, and identified 73% of that population who had visited a physician at least once during that year. We studied the associations between individuals and country of birth socioeconomic characteristics, as well as individual utilisation of different kinds of physicians in relation to having been granted a disability pension. RESULTS : Living alone (ORwomen = 1.72, 95% CI: 1.62-1.82; ORmen = 2.64, 95% CI: 2.46-2.83) and having limited educational achievement (ORwomen = 2.14, 95% CI: 2.00-2.29; ORmen = 2.12, 95% CI: 1.98-2.28) were positively associated with having a disability pension. Utilisation of public specialists was associated with a higher probability (ORwomen = 2.11, 95% CI: 1.98-2.25; ORmen = 2.16, 95% CI: 2.01-2.32) and utilisation of private GPs with a lower probability (ORmen = 0.76, 95% CI: 0.69-0.83) of having a disability pension. However, these associations differed by countries of birth. Over and above individual socioeconomic status, men from middle income countries had a higher probability of having a disability pension (ORmen = 1.61, 95% CI: 1.06-2.44). CONCLUSION: The country of one's birth appears to play a significant role in understanding how individual socioeconomic differences bear on the likelihood of receiving a disability pension and on associated patterns of health care utilisation.