Type I interferons (IFNs) are known for their key role in antiviral immune responses. In this Review, we discuss accumulating evidence indicating that type I IFNs produced by malignant cells or tumour-infiltrating dendritic cells also control the autocrine or paracrine circuits that underlie cancer immunosurveillance. Many conventional chemotherapeutics, targeted anticancer agents, immunological adjuvants and oncolytic viruses are only fully efficient in the presence of intact type I IFN signalling. Moreover, the intratumoural expression levels of type I IFNs or of IFN-stimulated genes correlate with favourable disease outcome in several cohorts of patients with cancer. Finally, new anticancer immunotherapies are being developed that are based on recombinant type I IFNs, type I IFN-encoding vectors and type I IFN-expressing cells.