Efficient human-to-human transmission is a necessary property for the generation of a pandemic influenza virus. To date, only influenza A viruses within the H1–H3 subtypes have achieved this capacity. However, sporadic cases of severe disease in individuals following infection with avian influenza A viruses over the past decade, and the emergence of a pandemic H1N1 swine-origin virus in 2009, underscore the need to better understand how influenza viruses acquire the ability to transmit efficiently. In this review, we discuss the biological constraints and molecular features known to affect virus transmissibility to and among humans. Factors influencing the behaviour of aerosols in the environment are described, and the mammalian models used to study virus transmission are presented. Recent progress in understanding the molecular determinants that confer efficient transmission has identified crucial roles for the haemagglutinin and polymerase proteins; nevertheless, influenza virus transmission remains a polygenic trait that is not completely understood. The clinical implications of this research, including methods currently under investigation to mitigate influenza virus human-to-human transmission, are discussed. A better understanding of the viral determinants necessary for efficient transmission will allow us to identify avian influenza viruses with pandemic potential.