A critical component of vaccine design is to generate and maintain antigen-specific memory lymphocytes of sufficient quantity and quality to give the host life-long protection against re-infection. Therefore, it is important to understand how memory T cells acquire the ability for self-renewal while retaining a potential for heightened recall of effector functions. During acute viral infection or following vaccination, antigen-specific T cells undergo extensive phenotypic and functional changes during differentiation to the effector and memory phases of the immune response. The changes in cell phenotype that accompany memory T-cell differentiation are predominantly mediated through acquired transcriptional regulatory mechanisms, in part achieved through epigenetic modifications of DNA and histones. Here we review our current understanding of epigenetic mechanisms regulating the off-on-off expression of CD8 and CD4 T-cell effector molecules at naive, effector and memory stages of differentiation, respectively, and how covalent modifications to the genome may serve as a mechanism to preserve ‘poised’ transcriptional states in homeostatically dividing memory cells. We discuss the potential of such mechanisms to control genes that undergo on-off-on patterns of expression including homing and pro-survival genes, and the implications on the development of effector-memory and central-memory T-cell differentiation. Lastly, we review recent studies demonstrating epigenetic modifications as a mechanism for the progressive loss of transcriptional adaptation in antigen-specific T cells that undergo sustained high levels of T-cell receptor signalling.