Although human colonization by facultative bacterial pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus, represents a major risk factor for invasive infections, the commensal lifestyle of such pathogens has remained a neglected area of research. S. aureus colonizes the nares of approximately 30% of the human population and recent studies suggest that the composition of highly variable nasal microbiota has a major role in promoting or inhibiting S. aureus colonization. Competition for epithelial attachment sites or limited nutrients, different susceptibilities to host defence molecules and the production of antimicrobial molecules may determine whether nasal bacteria outcompete each other. In this Review, we discuss recent insights into mechanisms that are used by S. aureus to prevail in the human nose and the counter-strategies that are used by other nasal bacteria to interfere with its colonization. Understanding such mechanisms will be crucial for the development of new strategies for the eradication of endogenous facultative pathogens.