Suppressor of cytokine signalling (SOCS) proteins are inhibitors of cytokine signalling pathways. Studies have shown that SOCS proteins are key physiological regulators of both innate and adaptive immunity. These molecules positively and negatively regulate macrophage and dendritic-cell activation and are essential for T-cell development and differentiation. Evidence is also emerging of the involvement of SOCS proteins in diseases of the immune system. In this Review we bring together data from recent studies on SOCS proteins and their role in immunity, and propose a cohesive model of how cytokine signalling regulates immune-cell function.