The transfer of genes into cells, both in vitro and in vivo, is critical for studying gene function and conducting gene therapy. Methods that utilize viral and nonviral vectors, as well as physical approaches, have been explored. Viral vector-mediated gene transfer employs replication-deficient viruses such as retro-virus, adenovirus, adeno-associated virus and herpes simplex virus. A major advantage of viral vectors is their high gene delivery efficiency. The nonviral vectors developed so far include cationic liposomes, cationic polymers, synthetic peptides and naturally occurring compounds. These nonviral vectors appear to be highly effective in gene delivery to cultured cells in vitro but are significantly less effective in vivo. Physical methods utilize mechanical pressure, electric shock or hydrodynamic force to transiently permeate the cell membrane to transfer DNA into target cells. They are simpler than viral- and nonviral-based systems and highly effective for localized gene delivery. The past decade has seen significant efforts to establish the most desirable method for safe, effective and target-specific gene delivery, and good progress has been made. The objectives of this review are to (i) explain the rationale for the design of viral, nonviral and physical methods for gene delivery; (ii) provide a summary on recent advances in gene transfer technology; (iii) discuss advantages and disadvantages of each of the most commonly used gene delivery methods; and (iv) provide future perspectives.