The priming of natural killer (NK) cells by type I interferon (IFN) is necessary for protection against primary and secondary viral infections. However, the pathway by which type I IFN activates NK cells to elicit antiviral responses is controversial. There is evidence to suggest that type I IFN priming of NK cells occurs through both direct and indirect pathways. As with many innate mechanisms, type I IFN and NK cells also orchestrate the adaptive immune response and thus aid in protection against secondary infections. Type I IFN can shape CD4(+) T cell, B cell and humoral memory formation. In addition, long-lived NK cells can perform specific and enhanced memory-like protection in secondary infections. This review outlines the different mechanisms underlying type I IFN regulation of NK cells and how type I IFN and NK cells can be used as a therapeutic target in vaccinations.