While the recurrent cost of managing marine protected areas (MPAs) has been documented and estimated, there has been virtually no attempt to quantify the cost of establishing MPAs in the first place. This lack of attention is likely the result of the complexity of the process, involving often uncoordinated efforts of a multitude of governmental and non-governmental entities over a protracted period of time with no clear start and end-point. Using information gathered from a representative subset of MPAs worldwide, this paper presents the first attempt to identify and describe the various components, and explore potential predictors of the total funds spent in the course of establishment. The thirteen MPAs studied vary in size (from <1 to >360,000km2), location (including near- and offshore in both developed and developing countries), objectives and degree of protection. Variation in MPA start-up costs is shown to be most significantly related to both MPA size and the duration of the establishment phase. Development of a method to estimate the potential cost of establishing proposed MPAs should play a crucial role in the conservation planning process.