Evapotranspiration (ET) variations in the Yangtze River Basin (YRB) are influenced by environmental and climate changes related to planting of crops, forest vegetation, water use and other human activities. However, it is difficult to measure ET variations and analyse influencing factors in the YRB due to lack of in-situ measurements. In the present study, the ET variations were estimated and investigated in the whole, the upper, middle and lower reaches of the YRB using the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, optical remote sensing data and hydrological models based on a water balance method, which was validated by MODerate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) observations and models. Furthermore, GRACE-ET verified the drought events in 2006 and 2011. The long-term variation rate of GRACE-ET is 0.79 mm/yr. The spatial distribution of seasonal ET variations indicates that ET is highest in summer and lowest in autumn-winter. It also shows that the completion of the Three Gorges Project has certainly increased ET. Precipitation and temperature have the largest impact on the ET variations; radiation and soil moisture have moderate effects. ET variations in the middle and lower reaches are greatly affected by precipitation, and temperature plays a more important role in the upper YRB reaches.