Cysteine cathepsins (CTSs) are involved in the degradation and remodeling of the extracellular matrix and are associated with cellular transformation, differentiation, motility and adhesion in cancer development. Previous studies indicate that CTSs may be involved in ovarian cancer invasion and metastasis. However, due to the lack of large sample clinical studies and direct experimental evidence for the relationship between the expression of CTSs and invasion and metastasis, the diagnostic and prognostic value of CTSs in ovarian cancer progression has not been elucidated. In the present study, we observed that expression levels of CTSB, CTSL and CC in malignant ovarian tumors were significantly higher than the expression levels in benign tumors and normal ovarian tissues, yet their associations with clinicopathological features varied. In particular, CTSL was related to lymph node metastasis, CC was related to liver metastasis and omental metastasis, and CTSB and CTSL expression levels were found to be independent prognostic factors in ovarian cancer. Further study indicated that the serum level of CTSL was significantly higher in patients with ovarian malignant tumors than the levels in benign tumors and healthy controls, and the levels were elevated in low grade and advanced stage compared to the levels in high grade and early stage disease, suggesting that the serum level of CTSL may be a useful serum marker for the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Furthermore, the expression of CTSL in ovarian cancer cells can greatly enhance the ability of cell invasion and metastasis, although no change was observed for cell adhesion. Taken together, we demonstrated that the overexpression of CTSL is involved in tumor invasion and metastasis, and the CTSL level in serum may be a marker for invasion and metastasis in ovarian cancer.