Despite the wide use of cell lines in cancer research, the extent to which their surface properties correspond to those of primary tumors is poorly characterized. The present study addresses this problem from a transcriptional standpoint, analyzing the expression of membrane protein genes--the Membranome--in primary tumors and immortalized in-vitro cultured tumor cells. 409 human samples, deriving from ten independent studies, were analyzed. These comprise normal tissues, primary tumors and tumor derived cell lines deriving from eight different tissues: brain, breast, colon, kidney, leukemia, lung, melanoma, and ovary. We demonstrated that the Membranome has greater power than the remainder of the transcriptome when used as input for the automatic classification of tumor samples. This feature is maintained in tumor derived cell lines. In most cases primary tumors show maximal similarity in Membranome expression with cell lines of same tissue origin. Differences in Membranome expression between tumors and cell lines were analyzed also at the pathway level and biological themes were identified that were differentially regulated in the two settings. Moreover, by including normal samples in the analysis, we quantified the degree to which cell lines retain the Membranome up- and down-regulations observed in primary tumors with respect to their normal counterparts. We showed that most of the Membranome up-regulations observed in primary tumors are lost in the in-vitro cultured cells. Conversely, the majority of Membranome genes down-regulated upon tumor transformation maintain lower expression levels also in the cell lines. This study points towards a central role of Membranome genes in the definition of the tumor phenotype. The comparative analysis of primary tumors and cell lines identifies the limits of cell lines as a model for the study of cancer-related processes mediated by the cell surface. Results presented allow for a more rational use of the cell lines as a model of cancer.