© 2015 British Society of Soil Science. For soils from tea estates in northern India, sulphate sorption was of a similar magnitude to, and sometimes exceeded, phosphate sorption. Only a small part of this relatively large sulphate sorption was caused by the low pH of these soils. Most was caused by increased negative charge as a result of prior reaction over many decades with phosphate fertilizers. This decreased sorption of both phosphate and sulphate, but the effect on phosphate was larger. This is compatible with a model in which the mean location of the charge on the adsorbed phosphate ions is closer to the surface than for sulphate. On soils of low phosphate status, sulphate desorption curves showed hysteresis; on soils of high phosphate status, they did not. Further, on soils of high phosphate status, displacement of sulphate by phosphate solutions was faster. We interpret these observations as showing that, for low phosphate status soils, sulphate ions penetrated the surface, but for high phosphate status soils it did not because the pathways by which sulphate diffuses into the adsorbing material were blocked. We also show that, with increasing soil phosphate status, phosphate solutions were less effective in displacing sorbed sulphate. We think this also occurred because reaction with phosphate had decreased the affinity for phosphate more than it decreased the affinity for sulphate.