In its classical form, autophagy is a pathway by which cytoplasmic constituents, including intracellular pathogens, are sequestered in a double-membrane-bound autophagosome and delivered to the lysosome for degradation. This pathway has been linked to diverse aspects of innate and adaptive immunity, including pathogen resistance, production of type I interferon, antigen presentation, tolerance and lymphocyte development, as well as the negative regulation of cytokine signaling and inflammation. Most of these links have emerged from studies in which genes encoding molecules involved in autophagy are inactivated in immune effector cells. However, it is not yet known whether all of the critical functions of such genes in immunity represent 'classical autophagy' or possible as-yet-undefined autophagolysosome-independent functions of these genes. This review summarizes phenotypes that result from the inactivation of autophagy genes in the immune system and discusses the pleiotropic functions of autophagy genes in immunity.