Sacroiliitis on conventional radiography, a key diagnostic feature of axial spondyloarthritis (SpA), often appears only late in the disease course. With the introduction of potent biologic agents that may also be effective in early disease, diagnostic techniques that can identify SpA early in the disease course would be highly beneficial to patients. MRI has been proposed as a novel diagnostic tool for early axial SpA based on the visualization of active inflammatory lesions in established axial SpA, as well as in pre-radiographic axial SpA. Accordingly, MRI is already widely used in clinical practice and has been included in new classification criteria. However, the specificity and predictive value of MRI lesions for the development of axial SpA remain to be fully defined and validated. Most data come from cross-sectional analyses and have not been validated in prospective studies, and the few available prospective studies were performed in highly selected patient populations and have assessed the value of MRI for the prediction of sacroiliitis rather than axial SpA. Also, some studies have indicated considerable diversity in the pattern and extent of MRI lesions, and suggest that many lesions are not specific for SpA. Prospective, longitudinal studies are needed to validate the utility of this new imaging modality for the diagnosis of axial SpA.