In the present study, we investigated berberine‑induced apoptosis and the signaling pathways underlying its activity in FaDu head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells. Berberine did not affect the viability of primary human normal oral keratinocytes. In contrast, the cytotoxicity of berberine was significantly increased in FaDu cells stimulated with berberine for 24 h. Furthermore, berberine increased nuclear condensation and apoptosis rates in FaDu cells than those in untreated control cells. Berberine also induced the upregulation of apoptotic ligands, such as FasL and TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand, and triggered the activation of caspase-8, -7 and -3, and poly(ADP ribose) polymerase, characteristic of death receptor-dependent extrinsic apoptosis. Moreover, berberine activated the mitochondria‑dependent apoptotic signaling pathway by upregulating pro-apoptotic factors, such as Bax, Bad, Apaf-1, and the active form of caspase-9, and downregulating anti-apoptotic factors, such as Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL. In addition, berberine increased the expression of the tumor suppressor p53 in FaDu cells. The pan-caspase inhibitor Z-VAD-fmk suppressed the activation of caspase-3 and prevented cytotoxicity in FaDu cells treated with berberine. Interestingly, berberine suppressed cell migration through downregulation of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-2, and MMP-9. Moreover, the phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK1/2) and p38, components of the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway that are associated with the expression of MMP and VEGF, was suppressed in FaDu cells treated with berberine for 24 h. Therefore, these data suggested that berberine exerted anticancer effects in FaDu cells through induction of apoptosis and suppression of migration. Berberine may have potential applications as a chemotherapeutic agent for the management of head and neck squamous carcinoma.