Water treatment plants removing iron from groundwater are commonly expected to operate in oxidation-floc formation mode. However, there are indications that adsorptive iron removal plays a role as well. Adsorptive iron removal has several potential advantages over oxidation-floc formation iron removal. Therefore, the physical and surface chemical characteristics of coated sand from twelve different groundwater treatment plants in the Netherlands were analysed to assess their potential use in adsorptive iron removal. Specific surface areas, amounts of iron, manganese, calcium and TOC in the coatings and iron(II) adsorption capacities of the coated media were measured. Additionally, grain size distribution and density of the media were determined and X-ray diffractograms, scanning electron micrographs and EDAX spectra were prepared. Compared to new sand, coated sand had a very high porosity and a very large specific surface area. The surface extractable iron content of the coated sand increased with iron loading. The iron content of the coatings ranged from 27% to 45%. At pH 6.5, the iron(II) adsorption capacities of different coated sands were 10 to 55 times that of new sand. In general, iron(II) adsorption capacities of the coated sand from different plants increased with the increase in the time in use and the iron content of the coating. However, the average annual increase of iron content of the coatings and the iron adsorption capacity were different for the coated sands from different plants, probably due to the difference in water quality, process conditions applied and time in use. The grain size of the filter sand increased and their density decreased with the development of the coating. The decrease in density was a function of the increase in the effective grain size. EDAX analysis showed that iron and oxygen were the main elements in the coating followed by manganese, calcium, silicon and carbon. All the coatings analysed were X-ray amorphous or poorly crystalline. The measured high adsorption capacities of coated sand from wet filters and dry filters of full-scale groundwater treatment plants indicate that, in wet filters, adsorptive iron removal also plays a role. In dry filters, this mechanism should be dominant due to a very short pre-oxidation time. Process efficiencies of wet filters with iron oxide coated sand can be further improved by operating the filters predominantly in the adsorptive filtration mode.