Nearly a third of the world's population is estimated to be infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This enormous pool of latently infected individuals poses a major hurdle for global tuberculosis (TB) control. Currently, diagnosis of latent TB infection (LTBI) relies on the tuberculin skin test (TST), a century-old test with known limitations. In this review, the first of a two-part series on new tools for TB diagnosis, recent advances in the diagnosis of LTBI are described. The biggest advance in recent years has been the development of in vitro T-cell-based interferon-gamma release assays (IGRAs) that use antigens more specific to M. tuberculosis than the purified protein derivative used in the TST. Available research evidence on IGRAs suggests they have higher specificity than TST, better correlation with surrogate markers of exposure to M. tuberculosis in low-incidence settings, and less cross-reactivity due to BCG vaccination than the TST. IGRAs also appear to be at least as sensitive as the purified protein derivative-based TST for active TB. In the absence of a gold standard for LTBI, sensitivity and specificity for LTBI are not well defined. Besides high specificity, other potential advantages of IGRAs include logistical convenience, avoidance of poorly reproducible measurements, such as skin induration, need for fewer patient visits and the ability to perform serial testing without inducing the boosting phenomenon. Overall, due to its high specificity, IGRAs may be useful in low-endemic, high-income settings where cross-reactivity due to BCG might adversely impact the utility of TST. However, despite the growing evidence supporting the use of IGRAs, several unresolved and unexplained issues remain. The review concludes by highlighting areas where evidence is lacking, and provides an agenda for future research. Active TB and drug resistance are discussed in Part II; 423-432 of this issue.