Importin proteins were originally characterized for their central role in protein transport through the nuclear pores, the only intracellular entry to the nucleus. This vital function must be tightly regulated to control access by transcription factors and other nuclear proteins to genomic DNA, to achieve appropriate modulation of cellular behaviors affecting cell fate. Importin-mediated nucleocytoplasmic transport relies on their specific recognition of cargoes, with each importin binding to distinct and overlapping protein subsets. Knowledge of importin function has expanded substantially in regard to three key developmental systems: embryonic stem cells, muscle cells and the germ line. In the decade since the potential for regulated nucleocytoplasmic transport to contribute to spermatogenesis was proposed, we and others have shown that the importins that ferry transcription factors into the nucleus perform additional roles, which control cell fate. This review presents key findings from studies of mammalian spermatogenesis that reveal potential new pathways by which male fertility and infertility arise. These studies of germline genesis illuminate new ways in which importin proteins govern cellular differentiation, including via directing proteins to distinct intracellular compartments and by determining cellular stress responses.