Dendritic cells, macrophages and B cells are regarded as the classical antigen-presenting cells of the immune system. However, in recent years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of cell types that are suggested to present antigens on MHC class II molecules to CD4(+) T cells. In this Review, we describe the key characteristics that define an antigen-presenting cell by examining the functions of dendritic cells. We then examine the functions of the haematopoietic cells and non-haematopoietic cells that can express MHC class II molecules and that have been suggested to represent 'atypical' antigen-presenting cells. We consider whether any of these cell populations can prime naive CD4(+) T cells and, if not, question the effects that they do have on the development of immune responses.