Basophils and mast cells express all the three subchains of the high-affinity immunoglobulin E (IgE) receptor FcεRI and contain preformed histamine in the cytoplasmic granules. However, it is increasingly clear that these cells play distinct roles in allergic inflammatory disease. Despite their presence throughout much of the animal kingdom, the physiological function of basophils remains obscure. As rodent mast cells are more numerous than basophils, and generate an assortment of inflammatory cytokines, basophils have often been regarded as minor players in allergic inflammation. In humans, however, basophils are the prime early producers of interleukin (IL)-4 and IL-13, T helper (Th)2-type cytokines crucial for initiating and maintaining allergic responses. Basophils also express CD40 ligand which, in combination with IL-4 and IL-13, facilitates IgE class switching in B cells. They are the main cellular source for early IL-4 production, which is vital for the development of Th2 responses. The localization of basophils in various tissues affected by allergic inflammation has now been clearly demonstrated by using specific staining techniques and the new research is shedding light on their selective recruitment to the tissues. Finally, recent studies have shown that basophil activation is not restricted to antigen-specific IgE crosslinking, but can be caused in non-sensitized individuals by a growing list of parasitic antigens, lectins and viral superantigens, binding to non-specific IgE antibodies. This, together with novel IgE-independent routes of activation, imparts important new insights into the potential role of basophils in both adaptive and innate immunity.