Abstract Plasmonics is a promising new approach to enhance the light trapping properties of thin-film solar cells. Metal nanoparticles support surface plasmon modes, which are used to couple light into the underlying optical modes of the semiconductor. Tuning the surface plasmon resonance can be used in order to enhance absorption in the wavelength region required. Excitation of surface plasmons is characterised by strong scattering and enhancement of the electric field around the vicinity of the metal nanoparticle. Photocurrent enhancements have been reported from both inorganic and organic solar cells due to either one of these mechanisms. This paper reviews recent progress in this area and also discusses the potential of surface plasmons in the third generation solar cells.