| Extracellular vesicles, such as exosomes and microvesicles, are host cell-derived packages of information that allow cell-cell communication and enable cells to rid themselves of unwanted substances. The release and uptake of extracellular vesicles has important physiological functions and may also contribute to the development and propagation of inflammatory, vascular, malignant, infectious and neurodegenerative diseases. This Review describes the different types of extracellular vesicles, how they are detected and the mechanisms by which they communicate with cells and transfer information. We also describe their physiological functions in cellular interactions, such as in thrombosis, immune modulation, cell proliferation, tissue regeneration and matrix modulation, with an emphasis on renal processes. We discuss how the detection of extracellular vesicles could be utilized as biomarkers of renal disease and how they might contribute to disease processes in the kidney, such as in acute kidney injury, chronic kidney disease, renal transplantation, thrombotic microangiopathies, vasculitides, IgA nephropathy, nephrotic syndrome, urinary tract infection, cystic kidney disease and tubulopathies. Finally, we consider how the release or uptake of extracellular vesicles can be blocked, as well as the associated benefits and risks, and how extracellular vesicles might be used to treat renal diseases by delivering therapeutics to specific cells.