Abstract Background Adolescent reproductive health has not continued to receive the attention it deserves since the start of the HIV epidemic. In South Africa, high numbers of adolescent women report pregnancies that are unwanted and yet few have accessed available termination of pregnancy services. Enabling contraception use is vital for meeting the goals of HIV prevention. Methods A nationally representative survey of South African 15–24 year olds was undertaken. Participants completed a questionnaire on sexual behaviour and provided an oral fluid sample for HIV testing. Analysis of the data was restricted to women (n = 6217), particularly those who reported being sexual active in the last 12 months (n = 3618) and was conducted using svy methods in the program STATA 8.0 to take account of sampling methods. Univariate and multivariate analyses were conducted to explore factors associated with contraceptive use. Results Two thirds of all women reported having ever been sexually active and among these 87% were sexually active in the past 12 months. Among women who reported currently being sexually active, 52.2% reported using contraceptives. There was evidence of association between contraceptive use and being employed or a student (vs unemployed); fewer sex partners; type of last sex partner; having talked to last partner about condom use and having ever been pregnant. Conclusion Specific emphasis must be placed on encouraging young women to use contraceptive methods that offer protection against pregnancy and STIs/HIV. Our consistent finding of a relationship between discussing condom use with partners and condom use indicates the importance of involvement of male partners in women's contraceptive decisions.