Inorganic/organic hybrid nanoparticles are potentially useful in biomedicine, but to avoid non-specific background fluorescence and long-term toxicity, they need to be cleared from the body within a reasonable timescale. Previously, we have shown that rigid spherical nanoparticles such as quantum dots can be cleared by the kidneys if they have a hydrodynamic diameter of approximately 5.5 nm and a zwitterionic surface charge. Here, we show that quantum dots functionalized with high-affinity small-molecule ligands that target tumours can also be cleared by the kidneys if their hydrodynamic diameter is less than this value, which sets an upper limit of 5-10 ligands per quantum dot for renal clearance. Animal models of prostate cancer and melanoma show receptor-specific imaging and renal clearance within 4 h post-injection. This study suggests a set of design rules for the clinical translation of targeted nanoparticles that can be eliminated through the kidneys.