The thymus produces self-tolerant functionally competent T cells. This process involves the import of multipotent haematopoietic progenitors that are then signalled to adopt the T cell fate. Expression of T cell-specific genes, including those encoding the T cell receptor (TCR), is followed by positive and negative selection and the eventual export of mature T cells. Significant progress has been made in elucidating the signals that direct progenitor cell trafficking to, within and out of the thymus. These advances are the subject of this Review, with a particular focus on the role of reciprocal cooperative and regulatory interactions between TCR- and chemokine receptor-mediated signalling.