Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) cause benign tumors in the respiratory tract. Mounting evidence suggests that they also play a role in the etiology of a subset of head and neck cancers. Carcinomas in patients with a history of recurrent respiratory papillomatosis clearly are caused by persisting HPV interacting with one of more carcinogenic agents. Verrucous carcinomas of the oral cavity, tonsillar and tongue carcinomas are strongly linked with HPVs, based on molecular epidemiologic data. Tonsillar cancer have been shown to express HPV RNA, presumed necessary to induce and maintain a carcinoma, supporting a viral etiology. This paper reviews the molecular and cellular basis for considering HPVs as causative agents of cancer, and reviews the literature that considers the possible role of HPVs in head and neck cancer.