The functional relevance of preexisting cross-immunity to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a subject of intense debate. Here, we show that human endemic coronavirus (HCoV)–reactive and SARS-CoV-2–cross-reactive CD4+ T cells are ubiquitous but decrease with age. We identified a universal immunodominant coronavirus-specific spike peptide (S816-830) and demonstrate that preexisting spike- and S816-830–reactive T cells were recruited into immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection and their frequency correlated with anti–SARS-CoV-2-S1-IgG antibodies. Spike–cross-reactive T cells were also activated after primary BNT162b2 COVID-19 messenger RNA vaccination and displayed kinetics similar to those of secondary immune responses. Our results highlight the functional contribution of preexisting spike–cross-reactive T cells in SARS-CoV-2 infection and vaccination. Cross-reactive immunity may account for the unexpectedly rapid induction of immunity after primary SARS-CoV-2 immunization and the high rate of asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 disease courses.