Rapid changes in cellular morphology require a cell body that is highly flexible yet retains sufficient strength to maintain structural integrity. We present a mechanism that meets both of these requirements. We demonstrate that compression (folding) and subsequent dilation (unfolding) of the coupled plasma membrane–cortex layer generates rapid shape transformations in rounded cells. Two- and three-dimensional live-cell images showed that the cyclic process of membrane-cortex compression and dilation resulted in a traveling wave of cortical actin density. We also demonstrate that the membrane-cortex traveling wave led to amoeboid-like cell migration. The compression–dilation hypothesis offers a mechanism for large-scale cell shape transformations that is complementary to blebbing, where the plasma membrane detaches from the actin cortex and is initially unsupported when the bleb extends as a result of cytosolic pressure. Our findings provide insight into the mechanisms that drive the rapid morphological changes that occur in many physiological contexts, such as amoeboid migration and cytokinesis.