An assessment of six coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs) is undertaken in order to evaluate their ability in simulating winter atmospheric blocking highs in the northern hemisphere. The poor representation of atmospheric blocking in climate models is a long-standing problem (e.g. D’Andrea et al. in Clim Dyn 4:385–407, 1998), and despite considerable effort in model development, there is only a moderate improvement in blocking simulation. A modified version of the Tibaldi and Molteni (in Tellus A 42:343–365, 1990) blocking index is applied to daily averaged 500 hPa geopotential fields, from the ERA-40 reanalysis and as simulated by the climate models, during the winter periods from 1957 to 1999. The two preferred regions of blocking development, in the Euro-Atlantic and North Pacific, are relatively well captured by most of the models. However, the prominent error in blocking simulations consists of an underestimation of the total frequency of blocking episodes over both regions. A more detailed analysis revealed that this error was due to an insufficient number of medium spells and long-lasting episodes, and a shift in blocking lifetime distributions towards shorter blocks in the Euro-Atlantic sector. In the Pacific, results are more diverse; the models are equally likely to overestimate or underestimate the frequency at different spell lengths. Blocking spatial signatures are relatively well simulated in the Euro-Atlantic sector, while errors in the intensity and geographical location of the blocks emerge in the Pacific. The impact of models’ systematic errors on blocking simulation has also been analysed. The time-mean atmospheric circulation biases affect the frequency of blocking episodes, and the maximum event duration in the Euro-Atlantic region, while they sometimes cause geographical mislocations in the Pacific sector. The analysis of the systematic error in time-variability has revealed a negative relationship between the high-frequency variability of the transient eddies in the areas affected by blocking and blocking frequency. The blocking responses to errors in the low-frequency variability are different according to the region considered; the amplitude of the low-frequency variability is positively related to the blocking frequency and persistence in the Euro-Atlantic sector, while no such consistency is observed in the Pacific.