Background Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is a late-stage malignancy with poor prognosis, but we know little about what diagnostic tests and procedures people with CUP receive prior to diagnosis. The purpose of this study was to determine how health service utilisation prior to diagnosis for people with cancer-registry notified CUP differs from those notified with metastatic cancer of known primary. Methods We identified people with a cancer registry notification of CUP (n = 327) from the 45 and Up Study, a prospective cohort of 266,724 people 45 years in New South Wales, Australia, matched with up to three controls with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer of known primary (n = 977). Baseline questionnaire data were linked to population health data to identify all health service use, diagnostic tests, and procedures in the month of diagnosis and 3 months prior. We used conditional logistic regression to estimate adjusted odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Results After adjusting for age and educational attainment, people with a cancer-registry notified CUP diagnosis were more likely to be an aged care resident (OR = 2.78, 95%CI 1.37-5.63), have an emergency department visit (OR = 1.65, 95%CI 1.23-2.21), serum tumor marker tests (OR = 1.51, 95%CI 1.12-2.04), or a cytology test without immunohistochemistry (OR = 2.01, 95%CI 1.47-2.76), and less likely to have a histopathology test without immunohistochemistry (OR = 0.43, 95%CI 0.31-0.59). Neither general practitioner, specialist, allied health practitioner or nurse consultations, hospitalisations, nor imaging procedures were associated with a CUP diagnosis. Conclusions The health service and diagnostic pathway to diagnosis differs markedly for people notified with CUP compared to those with metastatic cancer of known primary. While these differences may indicate missed opportunities for earlier detection and appropriate management, for some patients they may be clinically appropriate.