Background: Chronic heart failure (CHF) is the leading cause of all hospitalisations and readmissions in older people, accounting for a large proportion of developed countries' national health care expenditure. CHF can severely affect people's quality of life by reducing their independence and ability to undertake certain activities of daily living, as well as affecting their psychosocial and economic capacity. This paper reports the findings of a systematic narrative review of qualitative studies concerning people's experience of living with CHF, aiming to develop a wide-ranging understanding of what is known about the patient experience. Methods. We searched eight relevant electronic databases using the terms based on the diagnosis of 'chronic heart failure', 'heart failure' and 'congestive heart failure' and qualitative methods, with restrictions to the years 1990-May 2008. We also used snowballing, hand searching and the expert knowledge of the research team to ensure all relevant papers were included in the review. Of 65 papers collected less than half (n = 30) were found relevant for this review. These papers were subsequently summarised and entered into QSR NVivo7 for data management and analysis. Results: The review has identified the most prominent impacts of CHF on a person's everyday life including social isolation, living in fear and losing a sense of control. It has also identified common strategies through which patients with CHF manage their illness such as sharing experiences and burdens with others and being flexible to changing circumstances. Finally, there are multiple factors that commonly impact on patients' self care and self-management in the disease trajectory including knowledge, understanding and health service encounters. These health service encounters encompass access, continuity and quality of care, co-morbid conditions, and personal relationships. Conclusions: The core and sub-concepts identified within this study provide health professionals, service providers, policy makers and educators with broad insights into common elements of people's experiences of CHF and potential options for improving their health and wellbeing. Future studies should focus on building a comprehensive picture of CHF through examination of differences between genders, and differences within age groups, socioeconomic groups and cultural groups.