In their natural habitats, microorganisms are often exposed to osmolality changes in the environment. The osmotic stress must be sensed and converted into an activity change of specific enzymes and transport proteins and/or it must trigger their synthesis such that the osmotic imbalance can be rapidly restored. On the basis of the available literature, we conclude that representative gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria use different strategies to respond to osmotic stress. The main focus of this paper is on the initial response of bacteria to hyper- and hypo-osmotic conditions, and in particular the osmosensing devices that allow the cell to rapidly activate and/or to synthesize the transport systems necessary for uptake and excretion of compatible solutes. The experimental data allow us to discriminate the transport systems by the physicochemical parameter that is sensed, which can be a change in external osmotic pressure, turgor pressure, membrane strain, internal osmolality and/or concentration of specific signal molecule. We also evaluate the molecular basis for osmosensing by reviewing the unique structural features of known osmoregulated transport systems.