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A surface integral formulation for light scattering on periodic structures is presented. Electric and magnetic field equations are derived on the scatterers' surfaces in the unit cell with periodic boundary conditions. The solution is calculated with the method of moments and relies on the evaluation of the periodic Green's function performed with Ewald's method. The accuracy of this approach is assessed in detail. With this versatile boundary element formulation, a very large variety of geometries can be simulated, including doubly periodic structures on substrates and in multilayered media. The surface discretization shows a high flexibility, allowing the investigation of irregular shapes including fabrication accuracy. Deep insights into the extreme near-field of the scatterers as well as in the corresponding far-field are revealed. This method will find numerous applications for the design of realistic photonic nanostructures, in which light propagation is tailored to produce novel optical effects. (C) 2010 Optical Society of America