Beginning on 29 August 1984 at the Town Hall Auditorium in Christchurch, the tour’s first leg took place between the album's completion and release. Visiting Australia and New Zealand for the first time, the band were far more popular than they had expected, entering a country for the first time as a "big" band. By selling 60,000 tickets over five nights in Sydney's Entertainment Centre, for instance, the tour dubbed 'Under Australian Skies' gave U2 a glimpse of the stardom that would soon follow. Typically only "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" were played from the upcoming album at these shows, which more resembled a War Tour setlist.
The tour's second leg consisted of 21 shows in halls and arenas in Western Europe, and ran during October and November 1984. The third leg was a short series of 10 one-night stands in halls in major United States cities in December 1984, intended to gain positive notices in the press and provide a teaser of things to come for fans. The fourth leg was a return to Western Europe for 13 shows in January and February 1985, hitting cities that had been missed on the second leg. The fifth leg was a major tour of the United States and Canada, comprising 40 shows, in 29 different cities, and running from late February to early May 1985, now playing in arenas, with multiple nights in many of the locations. The band also played nine outdoor festival shows in late May through mid July 1985 in Western Europe, constituing a final leg of sorts. The tour's final performance was on 13 July 1985, their show-stealing performance at Live Aid.
Especially during the long North American leg, the tour found U2 consistently playing in arenas for the first time, and sometimes for multiple nights. The group had reached the level of popularity where this was possible, but had not yet broken out into widespread fame and familiarity among the general rock and pop audience; that would come in 1987 with the release of The Joshua Tree. The Unforgettable Fire Tour popularity level is sometimes referred to as "mass cult", and is similar to, say, what Bruce Springsteen had on his River Tour before Born in the U.S.A. or what Metallica had on their Damaged Justice tour before their Black Album. It made for intense concerts in this instance, because it provided a very large but fully devoted audience, with fans standing on chairs for the entire performance and continuing "40" refrains long after the show was over.
Some Unforgettable Fire numbers were not even attempted, although "4th of July" was played over the PA as an introduction and cue for the band, while some that were attempted were not as dense and precise as on record. In contrast, "Bad"'s backing track gave it a percolating, hypnotic presence. A performance of "Bad", from National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on 11 November 1984, was released on the Wide Awake in America EP in May 1985, and was chosen by many radio programmers for airplay over the studio version. "Bad" was also the highlight of the Live Aid performance mentioned above, and has continued to be played up through the band's Vertigo Tour.