Digital elevation models (DEMs) provide fundamental depictions of the three-dimensional shape of the Earth’s surface and are useful to a wide range of disciplines. Ideally, DEMs record the interface between the atmosphere and the lithosphere using a discrete two-dimensional grid, with complexities introduced by the intervening hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and anthroposphere. The treatment of DEM surfaces, affected by these intervening spheres, depends on their intended use, and the characteristics of the sensors that were used to create them. DEM is a general term, and more specific terms such as digital surface model (DSM) or digital terrain model (DTM) record the treatment of the intermediate surfaces. Several global DEMs generated with optical (visible and near-infrared) sensors and synthetic aperture radar (SAR), as well as single/multi-beam sonars and products of satellite altimetry, share the common characteristic of a georectified, gridded storage structure. Nevertheless, not all DEMs share the same vertical datum, not all use the same convention for the area on the ground represented by each pixel in the DEM, and some of them have variable data spacings depending on the latitude. This paper highlights the importance of knowing, understanding and reflecting on the sensor and DEM characteristics and consolidates terminology and definitions of key concepts to facilitate a common understanding among the growing community of DEM users, who do not necessarily share the same background.