Abstract Background In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, induced abortion is illegal but common, and fewer than 12 % of married reproductive-aged women use modern contraception. As part of a multi-method study about contraception and consequences of unwanted pregnancies, the objective of this study was to understand the experiences of Zanzibari women who terminated pregnancies. Methods The cross-sectional study was set in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Participants were a community-based sample of women who had terminated pregnancies. We carried out semi-structured interviews with 45 women recruited via chain-referral sampling. We report the characteristics of women who have had abortions, the reasons they had abortions, and the methods used to terminate their pregnancies. Results Women in Zanzibar terminate pregnancies that are unwanted for a range of reasons, at various points in their reproductive lives, and using multiple methods. While clinical methods were most effective, nearly half of our participants successfully terminated a pregnancy using non-clinical methods and very few had complications requiring post abortion care (PAC). Conclusions Even in settings where abortion is illegal, some women experience illegal abortions without adverse health consequences, what we might call ‘safer’ unsafe abortions; these kinds of abortion experiences can be missed in studies about abortion conducted among women seeking PAC in hospitals.