The beginning of the Norwegian oil industry is often attributed to the first exploration drilling in the North Sea in 1966, the first discovery in 1967 and the discovery of the supergiant Ekofisk field in 1969. However, petroleum exploration already started onshore Svalbard in 1960 with three mapping groups from Caltex and exploration efforts by the Dutch company Bataaffse (Shell) and the Norwegian private company Norsk Polar Navigasjon AS (NPN). NPN was the first company to spud a well at Kvadehuken near Ny-Ålesund in 1961. This drilling marked the start of an exciting period of petroleum exploration in Svalbard, with eighteen exploration wells drilled in the period from 1961 to 1994. The deepest well so far, Caltex’s Ishøgda-I near Van Mijenfjorden, reached 3304 m in 1966. NPN was involved in nine of the eighteen wells. The remaining wells were drilled by American (Caltex/Amoseas), Belgian (Fina), French (Total), Soviet/Russian (Trust Arktikugol), Swedish (Polargas Prospektering) and Norwegian companies Norsk Hydro and Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani. None of the wells resulted in commercial discoveries, though several wells encountered gas in measureable quantities. Only the two wells drilled in the early 1990s were drilled on structures defined using a sparse 2D seismic grid, while the other wells were drilled based on geological mapping at the surface. Furthermore, more recent research and coal exploration boreholes have confirmed moveable hydrocarbons in close proximity to the Longyearbyen and Pyramiden settlements. In this contribution, we present a historical and brief geological overview of the petroleum exploration wells onshore Svalbard. We illustrate that the eighteen petroleum exploration wells have together penetrated over 29 km of stratigraphy, with the Late Palaeozoic–Mesozoic successions particularly well covered. Coal exploration and research boreholes primarily focus on the Mesozoic–Cenozoic successions. As such, the boreholes represent an important window to decipher the stratigraphic evolution of both Svalbard and the greater Barents Shelf.