CD1d-restricted invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells bear characteristics of innate and adaptive lymphocytes, which allow them to bridge the two halves of the immune response and play roles in many disease settings. Recent work has characterized precisely how their activation is initiated and regulated. Novel antigens from important pathogens have been identified, as has an abundant self-antigen, β-glucopyranosylcaramide, capable of mediating an iNKT-cell response. Studies of the iNKT T-cell receptor (TCR)–antigen–CD1d complex show how docking between CD1d–antigen and iNKT TCR is highly conserved, and how small sequence differences in the TCR establish intrinsic variation in iNKT TCR affinity. The sequence of the TCR CDR3β loop determines iNKT TCR affinity for ligand–CD1d, independent of ligand identity. CD1d ligands can promote T helper type 1 (Th1) or Th2 biased cytokine responses, depending on the composition of their lipid tails. Ligands loaded into CD1d on the cell surface promote Th2 responses, whereas ligands with long hydrophobic tails are loaded endosomally and promote Th1 responses. This information is informing the design of synthetic iNKT-cell antigens. The iNKT cells may be activated by exogenous antigen, or by a combination of dendritic cell-derived interleukin-12 and iNKT TCR–self-antigen–CD1d engagement. The iNKT-cell activation is further modulated by recent foreign or self-antigen encounter. Activation of dendritic cells through pattern recognition receptors alters their antigen presentation and cytokine production, strongly influencing iNKT-cell activation. In a range of bacterial infections, dendritic cell-dependent innate activation of iNKT cells through interleukin-12 is the dominant influence on their activity.