Background: Self-rated health is commonly employed in research studies that seek to assess the health status of older individuals. Perceptions of health are, however, influenced by individual and societal level factors that may differ within and between countries. This study investigates levels of self-rated health (SRH) and correlates of SRH among older adults in Australia, United States of America (USA), Japan and South Korea. Methods: Cross-sectional data were drawn from large surveys of older respondents (> 65 years) in Australia (n = 7,355), USA (n = 10,358), Japan (n = 3,541) and South Korea (n = 3,971), collected between 2000 and 2006. Harmonized variables were developed to represent socioeconomic, lifestyle and health indicators. We then assessed whether these variables, and their potentially different impact in different countries, could account for cross-national differences in levels of SRH. Results: SRH differed significantly between countries, with older Koreans reporting much poorer health than those in the other three nations. This was not the result of biases in response patterns (for example central versus extreme tendency). Health-related correlates of SRH were similar across countries; those with more medical conditions, functional limitations or poor mental health gave poorer ratings. After accounting for the differential impact of determinants in different national contexts, Australians reported better SRH than other nations. Conclusions: We conclude that when examining correlates of SRH, the similarities are greater than the differences between countries. There are however differences in levels of SRH which are not fully accounted for by the health correlates. Broad generalizations about styles of responding are not helpful for understanding these differences, which appear to be country, and possibly cohort specific. When using SRH to characterize the health status of older people, it is important to consider earlier life experiences of cohorts as well as national and individual factors in later life. Further research is required to understand the complex societal influences on perceptions of health.