This paper studies the seasonal variation of surface and column CO at three different sites (Paris, Jungfraujoch and Wollongong), with an emphasis on establishing a link between the CO vertical distribution and the nature of CO emission sources. We find the first evidence of a time lag between surface and free tropospheric CO seasonal variations in the Northern Hemisphere. The CO seasonal variability obtained from the total columns and free tropospheric partial columns shows a maximum around March–April and a minimum around September–October in the Northern Hemisphere (Paris and Jungfraujoch). In the Southern Hemisphere (Wollongong) this seasonal variability is shifted by about 6 months. Satellite observations by the IASI–MetOp (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer) and MOPITT (Measurements Of Pollution In The Troposphere) instruments confirm this seasonality. Ground-based FTIR (Fourier transform infrared) measurements provide useful complementary information due to good sensitivity in the boundary layer. In situ surface measurements of CO volume mixing ratios at the Paris and Jungfraujoch sites reveal a time lag of the near-surface seasonal variability of about 2 months with respect to the total column variability at the same sites. The chemical transport model GEOS-Chem (Goddard Earth Observing System chemical transport model) is employed to interpret our observations. GEOS-Chem sensitivity runs identify the emission sources influencing the seasonal variation of CO. At both Paris and Jungfraujoch, the surface seasonality is mainly driven by anthropogenic emissions, while the total column seasonality is also controlled by air masses transported from distant sources. At Wollongong, where the CO seasonality is mainly affected by biomass burning, no time shift is observed between surface measurements and total column data.