A full understanding of nucleocytoplasmic transport depends on knowledge of nuclear pore complex (NPC) structure, the functional roles of NPC components, their interactions during transport and dynamics during the cell cycle. NPC structure is conserved, flexible, and is not simply a tunnel between the nucleus and cytoplasm but appears to be actively involved in the transport process by a series of structural modifications. Transport through the NPC begins in either of its asymmetrical peripheral compartments that are both structurally reorganized during transport in different ways. The central compartment is composed of two symmetrical halves, and functions as a system of transiently open, discrete gates that is not believed to play a role in determining direction. Each NPC subunit has a specific morphology that corresponds to the functional role it plays. A complicated system of vertical and horizontal connections may allow one part of the NPC to transmit a signal to other parts, leading to an ordered series of conformational changes that drive translocation. High-resolution scanning electron microscopy has identified sequential stages of NPC assembly in vitro and revealed how the individual NPC components are assembled into a mature NPC. This review focuses on structural events during transport and on possible mechanisms of NPC assembly.