Campylobacter jejuni is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhoeal disease in many areas of the world. The high incidence of sporadic cases of disease in humans is largely due to its prevalence as a zoonotic agent in animals, both in agriculture and in the wild. Compared with many other enteric bacterial pathogens, C. jejuni has strict growth and nutritional requirements and lacks many virulence and colonization determinants that are typically used by bacterial pathogens to infect hosts. Instead, C. jejuni has a different collection of factors and pathways not typically associated together in enteric pathogens to establish commensalism in many animal hosts and to promote diarrhoeal disease in the human population. In this Review, we discuss the cellular architecture and structure of C. jejuni, intraspecies genotypic variation, the multiple roles of the flagellum, specific nutritional and environmental growth requirements and how these factors contribute to in vivo growth in human and avian hosts, persistent colonization and pathogenesis of diarrhoeal disease.