Triggering of cell-mediated immunity is largely dependent on the recognition of foreign or abnormal molecules by a myriad of cell surface-bound receptors. Many activating immune receptors do not possess any intrinsic signaling capacity but instead form noncovalent complexes with one or more dimeric signaling modules that communicate with a common set of kinases to initiate intracellular information-transfer pathways. This modular architecture, where the ligand binding and signaling functions are detached from one another, is a common theme that is widely employed throughout the innate and adaptive arms of immune systems. The evolutionary advantages of this highly adaptable platform for molecular recognition are visible in the variety of ligand-receptor interactions that can be linked to common signaling pathways, the diversification of receptor modules in response to pathogen challenges, and the amplification of cellular responses through incorporation of multiple signaling motifs. Here we provide an overview of the major classes of modular activating immune receptors and outline the current state of knowledge regarding how these receptors assemble, recognize their ligands, and ultimately trigger intracellular signal transduction pathways that activate immune cell effector functions.