Linearly polarized CO2 laser beams have been used to investigate the effects of polarization on aluminum alloy weldability. Bead‐on‐plate welding tests have been performed on A5083 (AlMg4.5Mn0.7) alloy plates with quasi‐TEM00‐mode beams whose polarization direction is parallel or perpendicular to the welding direction, referred to as the parallel or the perpendicular polarization beam, respectively. Comparison of the fusion zone shapes between the two cases shows that deeper penetration, and hence more efficient optical energy coupling to the work can be obtained with the parallel polarization beam. This effect can be interpreted as being due to the higher Fresnel absorption at the keyhole front wall for the parallel polarization beam than for the perpendicular polarization beam. It is also found that the polarization effect is much more evident in the case of He gas shielding than in the case of Ar gas shielding. The weaker polarization effects observed in the case of Ar may be due to more densely formed laser‐induced plume or plasma because of lower ionization potential and much smaller thermal conductivity of Ar when compared with those of He. Under such conditions the energy coupling may be dominated by plasma absorption (the inverse bremsstrahlung absorption). It has so far been considered that in aluminum welding, the energy coupling is dominated by the plasma absorption, because relatively strong plasma is observed in aluminum welding. But our results indicate that the Fresnel absorption process has an important role on the energy coupling mechanism under certain conditions. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.