The objective is to determine the global population prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) based on population-based studies and assess factors that influence RA prevalence estimates. Four electronic databases were searched (ProQuest Central, MEDLINE, Web of Science, and EMBASE) for peer-reviewed English publications that report prevalence estimates of RA from 1980 and 2019. We included case–control studies, cross-sectional studies, and prospective or retrospective cohort studies in our search strategy. A random-effect meta-analysis model was used to produce the pooled prevalence estimates. The potential between-study heterogeneity was identifiedusing sensitivity analysis, sub-group and meta-regression analyses. A total of 67 studies were included in the meta-analysis, containing 742,246 RA patients and 211,592,925 healthy controls in the study period. The global RA prevalence estimate was 0.46% (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.39–0.54; I2 = 99.9%) with a 95% prediction interval (0.06–1.27). The RA point-prevalence was 0.45% (95% CI 0.38–0.53%) between 1986 and 2014, while the pooled period-prevalence was 0.46% (95% CI 0.36% and 0.57%) from 1955 to 2015. The highest RA pooled prevalence (0.69%; 95% CI 0.47–0.95) was derived from linked data source studies. Based on meta-regression, the factors that explain the studies’ heterogeneity of RA prevalence, including geographical location, the risk bias assessment of studies and sample size. The global prevalence of RA between 1980 and 2019 was 460 per 100,000 population, with variations due to geographical location and study methodology. Linked data are the preferred method to estimate RA population prevalence as they provide the best case ascertainment.