The effects of acid activation on the chemical composition, surface area and pore structure of palygorskite from Xuyi (Jiangsu, P.R. China) were investigated systematically using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and BET techniques. The palygorskite samples were activated with HCl, H2SO4 and H3PO4 of various concentrations at 80°C for 4 h. The influences of acid concentration and acid type on the chemical composition, adsorption-desorption isotherms at 77 K, pore-size distribution, surface area and pore volume were studied in detail. The contents of most components of palygorskite decrease with increasing acid concentration except for Si and Ti. HCl shows a greater activation activity and its effect on the dissolution of components of palygorskite is greater than that of H2SO4 and H3PO4. It was found that 3 mol l–1 H3PO4 is a more efficient activator for increasing the number of micropores in palygorskite, whereas 12 mol l–1 HCl is more suitable for use in enhancing the number of meso- and macropores. The acid concentration and acid type have a great influence on the surface area and pore volume. HCl is the most effective at enhancing the external surface area and mesopore volume of palygorskite, whereas, H3PO4 is more suitable for use in improving the micropore surface and volume.