Cation–chloride co-transporters serve to transport Cl– and alkali metal cations. Whereas a large family of these exists in higher eukaryotes, yeasts only possess one cation–chloride co-transporter, Vhc1, localized to the vacuolar membrane. In this study, the human cation–chloride co-transporter NKCC2 complemented the phenotype of VHC1 deletion in Saccharomyces cerevisiae and its activity controlled the growth of salt-sensitive yeast cells in the presence of high KCl, NaCl and LiCl. A S. cerevisiae mutant lacking plasma-membrane alkali–metal cation exporters Nha1 and Ena1-5 and the vacuolar cation–chloride co-transporter Vhc1 is highly sensitive to increased concentrations of alkali–metal cations, and it proved to be a suitable model for characterizing the substrate specificity and transport activity of human wild-type and mutated cation–chloride co-transporters. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.