Alternatives to efficient viral vectors in gene therapy are desired because of their poor safety profiles. Chitosan is a promising non-viral nucleotide delivery vector because of its biocompatibility, biodegradability, low immunogenicity and ease of manufacturing. Since the transfection efficiency of chitosan polyplexes is relatively low compared to viral counterparts, there is an impetus to gain a better understanding of the structure–performance relationship. Recent progress in preparation and characterisation has enabled coupling analysis of chitosans structural parameters that has led to increased TE by tailoring of chitosan's structure. In this review, we summarize the recent advances that have lead to a more rational design of chitosan polyplexes. We present an integrated review of all major areas of chitosan-based transfection, including preparation, chitosan and polyplexes physicochemical characterisation, in vitro and in vivo assessment. In each, we present the obstacles to efficient transfection and the strategies adopted over time to surmount these impediments.