Decades of research into homologous recombination have unravelled many of the details concerning the transfer of information between two homologous sequences. By contrast, the processes by which the interacting molecules initially colocalize are largely unknown. How can two homologous needles find each other in the genomic haystack? Is homologous pairing the result of a damage-induced homology search, or is it an enduring and general feature of the genomic architecture that facilitates homologous recombination whenever and wherever damage occurs? This Review presents the homologous-pairing enigma, delineates our current understanding of the process and offers guidelines for future research.