We present the goals and preliminary results of an unbiased, near-infrared, narrow-band imaging survey of the first galactic quadrant (10° < l < 65°; −13 < b < +13). This area includes most of the giant molecular clouds and massive star forming regions in the Northern hemisphere. The survey is centred on the 1–0 S(1) rovibrational line of H2, a proven tracer of hot, dense molecular gas in star-forming regions, around evolved stars, and in supernova remnants. The observations complement existing and upcoming photometric surveys (Spitzer-GLIMPSE, UKIDSS-GPS, JCMT-JPS, AKARI, Herschel Hi-GAL, etc.), though we probe a dynamically active component of star formation not covered by these broad-band surveys. Our narrow-band survey is currently more than 60 per cent complete. The median seeing in our images is 0.73 arcsec. The images have a 5σ detection limit of point sources of K∼ 18 mag and the surface brightness limit is 10−19 W m−2 arcsec−2 when averaged over our typical seeing. Jets and outflows from both low- and high-mass young stellar objects are revealed, as are new planetary nebulae and – via a comparison with earlier K-band observations acquired as a part of the UKIDSS GPS – numerous variable stars. With their superior spatial resolution, the UWISH2 data also have the potential to reveal the true nature of many of the extended green objects found in the GLIMPSE survey.