Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are ubiquitous pollutants in air, soil, and water and are known to have harmful effects on human health and the environment. The diurnal and nocturnal variations of 17 PAHs in ambient particle-bound PAHs were measured in urban Beijing (China) and Delhi (India) during the summer season using gas-chromatography–quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GC-Q-TOF-MS). The mean concentration of particles less than 2.5 µm (PM2.5) observed in Delhi was 3.6 times higher than in Beijing during the measurement period in both the daytime and night-time. In Beijing, the mean concentration of the sum of the 17 PAHs (P17 PAHs) was 8.2 ± 5.1 ng m−3 in daytime, with the highest contribution from indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene (12 %), while at nighttime the total PAHs was 7.2 ± 2.0 ng m−3, with the largest contribution from benzo[b]fluoranthene (14 %). In Delhi, the mean P17 PAHs was 13.6 ± 5.9 ng m−3 in daytime and 22.7 ± 9.4 ng m−3 at night-time, with the largest contribution from indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene in both the day (17 %) and night (20 %). Elevated mean concentrations of total PAHs in Delhi observed at night were attributed to emissions from vehicles and biomass burning and to meteorological conditions leading to their accumulation from a stable and low atmospheric boundary layer. Local emission sources were typically identified as the major contributors to total measured PAHs in both cities. Major emission sources were characterized based on the contribution from each class of PAHs, with the four-, five- and six-ring PAHs accounting ∼ 95 % of the total PM2.5-bound PAHs mass in both locations. The high contribution of five-ring PAHs to total PAH concentration in summer Beijing and Delhi suggests a high contribution from petroleum combustion. In Delhi, a high contribution from six-ring PAHs was observed at night, suggesting a potential emission source from the combustion of fuel and oil in power generators, widely used in Delhi. The lifetime excess lung cancer risk (LECR) was calculated for Beijing and Delhi, with the highest estimated risk attributed to Delhi (LECR = 155 per million people), which is 2.2 times higher than the Beijing risk assessment value (LECR = 70 per million people). Finally, we have assessed the emission control policies in each city and identified those major sectors that could be subject to mitigation measures.