Background Epidemiological characteristics and recent trends in unintentional drowning at the national level in China are unreported. Methods Using data from the Disease Surveillance Points system, the overall, sex-, location-, age- and cause-specific age-standardised mortality from unintentional drowning in China were calculated and compared. Linear regression was used to examine the significance of mortality trend changes over time. Results The average mortality was 4.05 per 100 000 persons between 2006 and 2013. Men and rural residents had much higher drowning mortality rates than women and urban residents at all time points. Drowning following a fall into natural water was the most common mechanism (46% of all drowning deaths). The overall drowning mortality rate remained stable for all subgroups except for distinct decreases in urban residents, children aged 5-9 years, and other specified and unspecified drowning (10%, 36% and 25%, respectively). Conclusions The overall drowning mortality rate remained high and stable in China between 2006 and 2013. Effective prevention measures like removing or covering water hazards, wearing personal floatation devices, supervision of children, and teaching survival swimming and resuscitation skills should be implemented nationwide.