The adsorption of phosphate onto calcite was studied in a series of batch experiments. To avoid the precipitation of phosphate-containing minerals the experiments were conducted using a short reaction time (3h) and low concentrations of phosphate (⩽50μM). Sorption of phosphate on calcite was studied in 11 different calcite-equilibrated solutions that varied in pH, PCO2, ionic strength and activity of Ca2+, CO32- and HCO3-. Our results show strong sorption of phosphate onto calcite. The kinetics of phosphate sorption onto calcite are fast; adsorption is complete within 2–3h while desorption is complete in less than 0.5h. The reversibility of the sorption process indicates that phosphate is not incorporated into the calcite crystal lattice under our experimental conditions. Precipitation of phosphate-containing phases does not seem to take place in systems with ⩽50μM total phosphate, in spite of a high degree of super-saturation with respect to hydroxyapatite (SIHAP⩽7.83). The amount of phosphate adsorbed varied with the solution composition, in particular, adsorption increases as the CO32- activity decreases (at constant pH) and as pH increases (at constant CO32- activity). The primary effect of ionic strength on phosphate sorption onto calcite is its influence on the activity of the different aqueous phosphate species. The experimental results were modeled satisfactorily using the constant capacitance model with >CaPO4Ca0 and either >CaHPO4Ca+ or >CaHPO4- as the adsorbed surface species. Generally the model captures the variation in phosphate adsorption onto calcite as a function of solution composition, though it was necessary to include two types of sorption sites (strong and weak) in the model to reproduce the convex shape of the sorption isotherms.