Al-doped zinc oxide (AZO) thin films were deposited on indium tin oxide (ITO) coated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) substrates by radio frequency (RF) magnetron sputtering method at room temperature. The effects of film thickness on the surface structure and the photoluminescence properties of the films were investigated by atomic force microscopy (AFM), secondary ion mass spectroscopy (SIMS) and room temperature photoluminescence (PL). AFM analysis showed that the surface of all films was extremely flat and uniform at nanoscale. Root mean square (RMS) value of the surface roughness which scanned the surface area of 3 mu m by 3 mu m and grain size increased with increasing the film thickness. Thus, the surface morphology of the films became rough because of the coarse grains. The depth profile of AZO layers was analyzed by SIMS. It was found that the thickness of the AZO layer is almost same with the desired film thickness. The PL intensity of the dominant peak decreased and shifted slightly towards the shorter wavelengths with increasing the film thickness. According to the relationships between luminescence intensity and crystalline characteristics, it was observed that the intensity of the peak decreased by the increased surface area of the grains. Copyright (c) 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.