Abstract Background Systemic treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) includes a variety of antineoplastic drugs. However, drug-resistance interferes with the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Preclinical testing models are needed in order to develop approaches to overcome chemoresistance. Methods Ten human cell lines were obtained from HNSCC, including one with experimentally-induced cisplatin resistance. Inhibition of cell growth by seven chemotherapeutic agents (cisplatin, carboplatin, 5- fluorouracil, methotrexate, bleomycin, vincristin, and paclitaxel) was measured using metabolic MTT-uptake assay and correlated to clinically-achievable plasma concentrations. Results All drugs inhibited cell growth in a concentration-dependent manner with an IC50 comparable to that achievable in vivo. However, response curves for methotrexate were unsatisfactory and for paclitaxel, the solubilizer cremophor EL was toxic. Cross-resistance was observed between cisplatin and carboplatin. Conclusion Chemosensitivity of HNSCC cell lines can be determined using the MTT-uptake assay. For DNA-interfering cytostatics and vinca alkaloids this is a simple and reproducible procedure. Determined in vitro chemosensitivity serves as a baseline for further experimental approaches aiming to modulate chemoresistance in HNSCC with potential clinical significance.