Umbilical cord blood transplant (UCBT) is associated with impaired early immune reconstitution. This might be explained by a lower T-cell dose infused, the naivety of cord blood T-cells and the use of in vivo T-cell depletion. We studied the pattern of early immune reconstitution and the clinical outcome of children undergoing unrelated UCBT when in vivo T-cell depletion was omitted. Thirty children affected by malignancies (46%) or immunodeficiencies (54%) underwent an unrelated UCBT. Prospective assessment of immune reconstitution and clinical outcome was performed. We observed an unprecedented CD4+ T-cell reconstitution, with a median cell count at 30 and 60 d post UCBT of 0·3 × 109/l and 0·56 × 109/l, respectively. Early T-cell expansion was thymic-independent, with a rapid shift from naïve to central memory phenotype and early regulatory T-cell recovery. Viral infections were frequent (63%) but resolved rapidly in most cases and virus-specific T-lymphocytes were detected within 2 months post-UCBT. Acute graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) was frequent (grade II = 34%, grade III–IV = 16%) but steroid responsive, and the incidence of chronic GvHD was low (14%). The omission of in vivo T-cell depletion promotes a unique thymic-independent CD4+ T-cell reconstitution after unrelated UCBT in children. We postulate that this relates to the specific immunological and ontological qualities of fetal-derived lymphocytes.