Polyubiquitin chain topology is thought to direct modified substrates to specific fates, but this function-topology relationship is poorly understood, as are the dynamics and subcellular locations of specific polyubiquitin signals. Experimental access to these questions has been limited because linkage-specific inhibitors and in vivo sensors have been unavailable. Here we present a general strategy to track linkage-specific polyubiquitin signals in yeast and mammalian cells, and to probe their functions. We designed several high-affinity Lys63 polyubiquitin-binding proteins and demonstrate their specificity in vitro and in cells. We apply these tools as competitive inhibitors to dissect the polyubiquitin-linkage dependence of NF-κB activation in several cell types, inferring the essential role of Lys63 polyubiquitin for signaling via the IL-1β and TNF-related weak inducer of apoptosis (TWEAK) but not TNF-α receptors. We anticipate live-cell imaging, proteomic and biochemical applications for these tools and extension of the design strategy to other polymeric ubiquitin-like protein modifications.