West Nile virus (WNV) is a flavivirus that is maintained in a bird–mosquito transmission cycle. Humans, horses and other non-avian vertebrates are usually incidental hosts, but evidence is accumulating that this might not always be the case. Historically, WNV has been associated with asymptomatic infections and sporadic disease outbreaks in humans and horses in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. However, since 1994, the virus has caused frequent outbreaks of severe neuroinvasive disease in humans and horses in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. In 1999, WNV underwent a dramatic expansion of its geographic range, and was reported for the first time in the Western Hemisphere during an outbreak of human and equine encephalitis in New York City. The outbreak was accompanied by extensive and unprecedented avian mortality. Since then, WNV has dispersed across the Western Hemisphere and is now found throughout the USA, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America. WNV has been responsible for >27,000 human cases, >25,000 equine cases and hundreds of thousands of avian deaths in the USA but, surprisingly, there have been only sparse reports of WNV disease in vertebrates in the Caribbean and Latin America. This review summarizes our current understanding of WNV with particular emphasis on its transmission dynamics and changing epidemiology.