Over the past two decades, the genetic and molecular basis of familial forms of diabetes insipidus has been elucidated. Diabetes insipidus is a clinical syndrome characterized by the excretion of abnormally large volumes of diluted urine (polyuria) and increased fluid intake (polydipsia). The most common type of diabetes insipidus is caused by lack of the antidiuretic hormone arginine vasopressin (vasopressin), which is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the neurohypophysis. This type of diabetes insipidus is referred to here as neurohypophyseal diabetes insipidus. The syndrome can also result from resistance to the antidiuretic effects of vasopressin on the kidney, either at the level of the vasopressin 2 receptor or the aquaporin 2 water channel (which mediates the re-absorption of water from urine), and is referred to as renal or nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. Differentiation between these two types of diabetes insipidus and primary polydipsia can be difficult owing to the existence of partial as well as complete forms of vasopressin deficiency or resistance. Seven different familial forms of diabetes insipidus are known to exist. The clinical presentation, genetic basis and cellular mechanisms responsible for them vary considerably. This information has led to improved methods of differential diagnosis and could provide the basis of new forms of therapy.