Type I interferons (IFNs) are pro-inflammatory cytokines that are rapidly induced in different cell types during viral infections. The consequences of type I IFN signalling include direct antiviral activity, innate immune cell activation and regulation of adaptive immune responses. In this Review, we discuss recent conceptual advances in our understanding of indirect and direct regulation of T cell immunity by type I IFNs, which can either promote or inhibit T cell activation, proliferation, differentiation and survival. This regulation depends, to a large extent, on the timing of type I IFN exposure relative to T cell receptor signalling. Type I IFNs also provide activated T cells with resistance to natural killer cell-mediated elimination.