Bacterial genomics is flourishing, as whole-genome sequencing has become affordable, readily available and rapid. As a result, it has become clear how frequently horizontal gene transfer (HGT) occurs in bacteria. The potential implications are highly significant because HGT contributes to several processes, including the spread of antibiotic-resistance cassettes, the distribution of toxin-encoding phages and the transfer of pathogenicity islands. Three modes of HGT are recognized in bacteria: conjugation, transduction and natural transformation. In contrast to the first two mechanisms, natural competence for transformation does not rely on mobile genetic elements but is driven solely by a developmental programme in the acceptor bacterium. Once the bacterium becomes competent, it is able to take up DNA from the environment and to incorporate the newly acquired DNA into its own chromosome. The initiation and duration of competence differ significantly among bacteria. In this review, we outline the latest data on representative naturally transformable Gram-negative bacteria and how their competence windows differ. We also summarize how environmental cues contribute to the initiation of competence in a subset of naturally transformable Gram-negative bacteria and how the complexity of the niche might dictate the fine-tuning of the competence window.