Overall satisfaction levels with social care are usually high but lower levels have been reported among black and minority ethnic (BME) service users in England. Reasons for this are poorly understood. This qualitative study therefore explored satisfaction with services among informal carer participants from five different ethnic groups. Fifty-seven carers (black Caribbean, black African, Asian Indian, Asian Pakistani and white British) were recruited from voluntary sector organisations and a local hospital in England, and took part in semi-structured interviews using cognitive interviewing and the critical incident technique. Interviews took place from summer 2013 to spring 2014. Thematic analysis of the interviews showed that participants often struggled to identify specific ‘incidents’, especially satisfactory ones. When describing satisfactory services, participants talked mostly about specific individuals and relationships. Unsatisfactory experiences centred on services overall. When rating services using cognitive interviewing, explicit comparisons with expectations or experiences with other services were common. Highest satisfaction ratings tended to be justified by positive personal characteristics among practitioners, trust and relationships. Lower level ratings were mostly explained by inconsistency in services, insufficient or poor care. Lowest level ratings were rare. Overall, few differences between ethnic groups were identified, although white British participants rated services higher overall giving more top ratings. White British participants also frequently took a more overall view of services, highlighting some concerns but still giving top ratings, while South Asian carers in particular focused on negative aspects of services. Together these methods provide insight into what participants mean by satisfactory and unsatisfactory services. Cognitive interviewing was more challenging for some BME participants, possibly a reflection of the meaningfulness of the concept of service satisfaction to them. Future research should include comparisons between BME and white participants’ understanding of the most positive parts of satisfaction scales and should focus on dissatisfied participants.