Zika virus was originally identified in a sentinel rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947. The virus is a member of the family Flaviviridae, genus Flavivirus, and is transmitted to humans by Aedes species mosquitoes. The first report of Zika virus outside Africa and Asia was in 2007 when the virus was associated with a small outbreak in Yap State, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Since then, Zika virus infections have been reported around the world, including in southeast Asia; French Polynesia and other islands in the Pacific Ocean; and parts of South, Central, and North America. Symptomatic infection in human beings normally results in a mild and self-limiting febrile disease, although recent reports have suggested a possible association with more serious sequelae such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, and microcephaly in newborn infants of mothers infected with Zika virus during pregnancy. In this Review, we summarise the history of Zika virus from its first detection to its current worldwide distribution.