Iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs, sometimes called superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles or SPIONs) have already shown promising results for in vivo cell tracking using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). To fully exploit the potential of these materials as contrast agents, there is still a need for a greater understanding of how they react to physiological conditions. A key aspect is the specific nature of the surface coating, which can affect important properties of the IONPs such as colloidal stability, toxicity, magnetism and labelling efficiency. Polymers are widely used as coatings for IONPs as they can increase colloidal stability in hydrophilic conditions, as well as protect the iron oxide core from degradation. In this tutorial review, we will examine the design and synthesis approaches currently being employed to produce polymer coated IONPs as cell tracking agents, and what considerations must be made. We will also give some perspective on the challenges and limitations that remain for polymer coated IONPs as MRI contrast agents for stem cell tracking.