Mammalian cells are surrounded by diverse nutrients, such as glucose, amino acids, various macromolecules and micronutrients, which they can import through transmembrane transporters and endolysosomal pathways. By using different nutrient sources, cells gain metabolic flexibility to survive periods of starvation. Quiescent cells take up sufficient nutrients to sustain homeostasis. However, proliferating cells depend on growth-factor-induced increases in nutrient uptake to support biomass formation. Here, we review cellular nutrient acquisition strategies and their regulation by growth factors and cell-intrinsic nutrient sensors. We also discuss how oncogenes and tumour suppressors promote nutrient uptake and thereby support the survival and growth of cancer cells.