Obligatory, coupled cotransport of Na(+), K(+), and Cl(-) by cell membranes has been reported in nearly every animal cell type. This review examines the current status of our knowledge about this ion transport mechanism. Two isoforms of the Na(+)-K(+)-Cl(-) cotransporter (NKCC) protein (approximately 120-130 kDa, unglycosylated) are currently known. One isoform (NKCC2) has at least three alternatively spliced variants and is found exclusively in the kidney. The other (NKCC1) is found in nearly all cell types. The NKCC maintains intracellular Cl(-) concentration ([Cl(-)](i)) at levels above the predicted electrochemical equilibrium. The high [Cl(-)](i) is used by epithelial tissues to promote net salt transport and by neural cells to set synaptic potentials; its function in other cells is unknown. There is substantial evidence in some cells that the NKCC functions to offset osmotically induced cell shrinkage by mediating the net influx of osmotically active ions. Whether it serves to maintain cell volume under euvolemic conditons is less clear. The NKCC may play an important role in the cell cycle. Evidence that each cotransport cycle of the NKCC is electrically silent is discussed along with evidence for the electrically neutral stoichiometries of 1 Na(+):1 K(+):2 Cl- (for most cells) and 2 Na(+):1 K(+):3 Cl(-) (in squid axon). Evidence that the absolute dependence on ATP of the NKCC is the result of regulatory phosphorylation/dephosphorylation mechanisms is decribed. Interestingly, the presumed protein kinase(s) responsible has not been identified. An unusual form of NKCC regulation is by [Cl(-)](i). [Cl(-)](i) in the physiological range and above strongly inhibits the NKCC. This effect may be mediated by a decrease of protein phosphorylation. Although the NKCC has been studied for approximately 20 years, we are only beginning to frame the broad outlines of the structure, function, and regulation of this ubiquitous ion transport mechanism.