Abstract Background In China, ethnic minorities often live in frontier areas and have a relatively small population size, and tremendous social transitions have enlarged the gap between eastern and western China, with western China being home to 44 ethnic minority groups. These three disadvantages have health impacts. Examining ethnicity and health inequality in the context of western China is therefore essential. Methods This paper is based on data from the 2010 China Survey of Social Change (CSSC2010), which was conducted in 12 provinces, autonomous regions and province-level municipalities in western China and had a sample size of 10,819. We examined self-rated health and disparities in self-rated health between ethnic minorities and Han Chinese in the context of western China. Self-rated health was coded as poor or good, and ethnicity was coded as ethnic minority or Han Chinese. Ethnic differences in self-rated health was examined by using binary logistic regression. Associations among sociodemographic variables, SES variable, health behaviour variable, health problem variables and self-rated health were also explored. Results Fourteen percent of respondents reported their health to be poor. A total of 15.75% of ethnic minorities and 13.43% of Han Chinese respondents reported their health to be poor, indicating a difference in self-rated health between ethnic minorities and Han Chinese. Age, gender, marital status, education, alcohol, and health problems were the main factors that affected differences in self-rated health. Conclusion In western China, there were obvious ethnic disparities in self-rated health. Elderly ethnic minorities, non-partnered ethnic minorities, ethnic minorities with an educational level lower than middle school, and ethnic minorities with chronic disease had higher odds of poor self-rated health.