Global land cover (GLC) maps and assessments of their accuracy provide important information for different user communities. To date, there are several GLC reference datasets which are used for assessing the accuracy of specific maps. Despite significant efforts put into generating them, their availability and role in applications outside their intended use have been very limited. This study analyses metadata information from 12 existing and forthcoming GLC reference datasets and assesses their characteristics and potential uses in the context of 4 GLC user groups, i.e., climate modellers requiring data on Essential Climate Variables (ECV), global forest change analysts, the GEO Community of Practice for Global Agricultural Monitoring and GLC map producers. We assessed user requirements with respect to the sampling scheme, thematic coverage, spatial and temporal detail and quality control of the GLC reference datasets. Suitability of the datasets is highly dependent upon specific applications by the user communities considered. The LC-CCI, GOFC-GOLD, FAO-FRA and Geo-Wiki datasets had the broadest applicability for multiple uses. The re-usability of the GLC reference datasets would be greatly enhanced by making them publicly available in an expert framework that guides users on how to use them for specific applications.