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Clear cell renal cell carcinoma (RCC) represents the most common histological subtype of malignant kidney tumors. Based on symptoms alone, clear cell RCC is indistinguishable from other histological classes of RCC unless the tumor is present in the context of an RCC syndrome. Histopathological examination is, therefore, important to accurately identify clear cell RCC. Clear cell RCCs have characteristic morphological criteria; these tumors can be easily identified upon typical presentation, but diagnosis can be challenging when tumor cell pattern is unusual or when availability of tissue samples is limited. In this Review, the clinical, radiological and pathological characteristics of clear cell RCCs are described, as well as the potential tumors that can be confused with clear cell RCC and need to be considered in the differential diagnoses. Finally, the importance of an accurate diagnosis is highlighted in the context of the increasing use of preoperative tissue sampling and the prevalence of clear cell tumors associated with hereditary syndromes, which could have different therapeutic and prognostic implications for patients and their families.