It is estimated that type 2 diabetes (T2D) currently affects about 246 million people worldwide, with South Asians, especially Indians, having both the largest number of cases and the fastest growing prevalence. South Asian ethnicity has been identified as a major risk factor for the development of T2D with central adiposity, insulin resistance and an unfavourable lipid profile being identified as predominant signals of alarm. Leading databases, including Web of Science, Medline, PubMed and Science Direct, were consulted and manual searches were conducted for cited references in leading diabetes-related journals. In all, 152 articles were included for the final assessment reported in this review. Genetic predisposition, central adiposity and unfavourable lifestyle, including physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet, were associated with the prevalence of T2D in migrant South Asians. ‘Westernization’, acculturation, socio-economic factors and lack of knowledge about the disease have also been identified as contributors to the development of T2D in this population. Higher prevalence of T2D in migrant South Asians may not be entirely attributed to genetic predisposition; hence, ethnicity and associated modifiable risk factors need further investigation. Preventive measures and appropriate interventions are currently limited by the lack of ethnic-specific cut-off points for anthropometric and biological markers, as well as by the absence of reliable methods for dietary and physical activity assessment. This article describes the prevalence rate, risk factors and complications associated with T2D in migrant South Asians living in different countries. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.