Umbilical cord blood (UCB), previously seen as medical waste, is increasingly recognized as a valuable source of cells for therapeutic use. The best-known application is in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), where UCB has become an increasingly important graft source in the 28 years since the first umbilical cord blood transplantation (UCBT) was performed. Recently, UCB has been increasingly investigated as a putative source for adoptive cell therapy. Areas covered: This review covers the advances in umbilical cord blood transplantation (UCBT) to overcome the limitation regarding cellular dose, immunological naivety and additional cell doses such as DLI. It also provides an overview regarding the progress in adoptive cellular therapy using UCB. Expert opinion: UCB has been established as an important source of stem cells for HSCT. Successful strategies to overcome the limitations of UCBT, such as the limited cell numbers and naivety of the cells, are being developed, including novel methods to perform in vitro expansion of progenitor cells, and to improve their homing to the bone marrow. Promising early clinical trials of adoptive therapies with UCB cells, including non-immunological cells, are currently performed for viral infections, malignant diseases and in regenerative medicine.