We review the most important fabrication techniques for glass and plastic refractive microlenses and we quantitatively characterize in a systematic way the corresponding state-of-the-art microlenses, which we obtained from selected research groups. For all our measurements we rely on three optical instruments: a non-contact optical profiler, a transmission Mach-Zehnder interferometer and a Twyman-Green interferometer. To conclude, we survey and discuss the different fabrication techniques by comparing the geometrical and optical characteristics of the microlenses, the range of materials in which the lenses can be produced, their potential for low-cost fabrication through mass-replication techniques and their suitability for monolithic integration with other micro-optical components. © 2006 IOP Publishing Ltd.