The unconventional T cell compartment encompasses a variety of cell subsets that straddle the line between innate and adaptive immunity, often reside at mucosal surfaces and can recognize a wide range of non-polymorphic ligands. Recent advances have highlighted the role of unconventional T cells in tissue homeostasis and disease. In this Review, we recast unconventional T cell subsets according to the class of ligand that they recognize; their expression of semi-invariant or diverse T cell receptors; the structural features that underlie ligand recognition; their acquisition of effector functions in the thymus or periphery; and their distinct functional properties. Unconventional T cells follow specific selection rules and are poised to recognize self or evolutionarily conserved microbial antigens. We discuss these features from an evolutionary perspective to provide insights into the development and function of unconventional T cells. Finally, we elaborate on the functional redundancy of unconventional T cells and their relationship to subsets of innate and adaptive lymphoid cells, and propose that the unconventional T cell compartment has a critical role in our survival by expanding and complementing the role of the conventional T cell compartment in protective immunity, tissue healing and barrier function.