The official world competition was first held in 1990, with four more championships held in the 90's. Beginning in 1989, and in years that there was no world tournament held, there were European Championships and in 1995 and 1996 a Pacific Rim Championship. As part of an effort to improve competition, the IIHF decided to hold Women's Championships in Olympic years, starting in 2014, but not at the top level.
The women's tournament began as an eight team tournament featuring Canada, the USA, the top five from the 1989 European championships, and one Asian qualifier. The same formula was used for 1992, 1994 and 1997, but changed following the Nagano Olympics. The best five from the Olympic tournament were qualified for 1999, followed by the best three from qualification rounds during the olympic year. The championship became a yearly tournament beginning in 1999 with promotion and relegation with lower ranked nations. Remaining nations play in groups of (now) six nations, with as many as five tiers.
Initially the tournament was an eight team tournament divided into two groups. The top two from each group played off for the gold, and beginning in 1999 the bottom two played off to determine placement and relegation. On four occasions the tournament was played with nine nations, using three groups of three. In this format first place from each group continued on to play for gold, second place from each group played for placement and an opportunity to still play for bronze, and the third place teams played off to determine relegation. Beginning in 2011 the eight team tournament changed its playoff structure to include a quarterfinal round as well. Currently the top four placed nations from the previous championship begin in group A, where the top two teams go directly to the semi-finals, the bottom two go to the quarter-finals to face the top two finishers from group B. The bottom two from group B then play each other in a best of three to determine relegation.
By 2003 the lower tiers were formalized into tiered groups of six, called Division I, Division II, and Division III with promotion for the top team in each and relegation for the bottom team. By 2009 it had grown up to Division V, but in 2012 the titles were changed to match the men's tournaments; Division I became IA, Division II became IB, Division III became IIA, Division IV became IIB, and Division V became IIB Qualification. Promotion and relegation remained the same after the title changes.
The rules of play are essentially the same as the men's with one key difference: body checking. Checking was allowed in the first championship but has been assessed as a minor penalty since. To be eligible players must be under the jurisdiction of the governing body they are representing and must be a citizen of that country. Additionally the player must be eighteen years old, or sixteen with a medical waiver, in the season the tournament takes place.
At most IIHF events, the tournament directorate awards the best forward, best defenceman, best goaltender and most valuable player of each tournament. at the women's event, these awards have been handed out in some combination since the first tournament, with the exception of 1997, and the cancelled tournament in 2003.