The herpes virus entry mediator (HVEM), a member of the tumour-necrosis factor receptor family, has diverse functions, augmenting or inhibiting the immune response. HVEM was recently reported as a colitis risk locus in patients, and in a mouse model of colitis we demonstrated an anti-inflammatory role for HVEM, but its mechanism of action in the mucosal immune system was unknown. Here we report an important role for epithelial HVEM in innate mucosal defence against pathogenic bacteria. HVEM enhances immune responses by NF-κB-inducing kinase-dependent Stat3 activation, which promotes the epithelial expression of genes important for immunity. During intestinal Citrobacter rodentium infection, a mouse model for enteropathogenic Escherichia coli infection, Hvem−/− mice showed decreased Stat3 activation, impaired responses in the colon, higher bacterial burdens and increased mortality. We identified the immunoglobulin superfamily molecule CD160 (refs 7 and 8), expressed predominantly by innate-like intraepithelial lymphocytes, as the ligand engaging epithelial HVEM for host protection. Likewise, in pulmonary Streptococcus pneumoniae infection, HVEM is also required for host defence. Our results pinpoint HVEM as an important orchestrator of mucosal immunity, integrating signals from innate lymphocytes to induce optimal epithelial Stat3 activation, which indicates that targeting HVEM with agonists could improve host defence.