Until recently, nonviral vectors were outside the mainstream of gene transfer technology. Recent problems in clinical trials using viral vectors renewed interest in these methods. The clinical usefulness of nonviral methods is still hindered by their relatively low gene delivery/transgene expression efficiencies. Vectors must navigate a series of obstacles before the therapeutic gene can be expressed. This review considers these barriers and the properties of components of nonviral vectors that are essential for nucleic acid transfer. Although developments of new physical methods (hydrodynamic delivery, ultrasound, electroporation) have made a significant impact on gene transfer efficiency, various chemical carriers (lipids and polymers) have been shown to achieve high-level gene delivery and functional expression. Success of nonviral gene targeting will depend not only on the efficacy, but also safety of this methodology, and this aspect is also discussed. Understanding problems associated with nonviral targeting can also help in designing better viral vectors. In fact, interplay between viral and nonviral technologies should lead to a continued refinement of both methodologies.