Many global health institutions, including the World Health Organization, consider primary health care as the path towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC). However, there remain concerns about the feasibility and effectiveness of this approach in low-resource countries. Ethiopia has been implementing the primary health-care approach since the mid-1970s, with primary health care at the core of the health system since 1993. Nevertheless, comprehensive and systemic evidence on the practice and role of primary health care towards UHC is lacking in Ethiopia. We made a document review of publicly available qualitative and quantitative data. Using the framework of the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative we describe and analyse the practice of primary health care and identify successes and challenges. Implementation of the primary health-care approach in Ethiopia has been possible through policies, strategies and programmes that are aligned with country priorities. There has been a diagonal approach to disease control programmes along with health-systems strengthening, community empowerment and multisectoral action. These strategies have enabled the country to increase health services coverage and improve the population's health status. However, key challenges remain to be addressed, including inadequate coverage of services, inequity of access, slow health-systems transition to provide services for noncommunicable diseases, inadequate quality of care, and high out-of-pocket expenditure. To resolve gaps in the health system and beyond, the country needs to improve its domestic financing for health and target disadvantaged locations and populations through a precision public health approach. These challenges need to be addressed through the whole sustainable development agenda.