While most studies of T lymphocytes have focused on T cells reactive to complexes of peptide and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins, many other types of T cells do not fit this paradigm. These include CD1-restricted T cells, MR1-restricted mucosal associated invariant T cells (MAIT cells), MHC class Ib-reactive T cells, and γδ T cells. Collectively, these T cells are considered 'unconventional', in part because they can recognize lipids, small-molecule metabolites and specially modified peptides. Unlike MHC-reactive T cells, these apparently disparate T cell types generally show simplified patterns of T cell antigen receptor (TCR) expression, rapid effector responses and 'public' antigen specificities. Here we review evidence showing that unconventional T cells are an abundant component of the human immune system and discuss the immunotherapeutic potential of these cells and their antigenic targets.