Alternative polyadenylation (APA) is an RNA-processing mechanism that generates distinct 3' termini on mRNAs and other RNA polymerase II transcripts. It is widespread across all eukaryotic species and is recognized as a major mechanism of gene regulation. APA exhibits tissue specificity and is important for cell proliferation and differentiation. In this Review, we discuss the roles of APA in diverse cellular processes, including mRNA metabolism, protein diversification and protein localization, and more generally in gene regulation. We also discuss the molecular mechanisms underlying APA, such as variation in the concentration of core processing factors and RNA-binding proteins, as well as transcription-based regulation.