Abstract The strong pulsed emission of electrons from the surface of ferroelectric (FE) materials was discovered at CERN in 1987. Since then many aspects and properties of the method of generation and propagation of electron beams from FE have been studied experimentally. The method is based on macroscopic charge separation and self-emission of electrons under the influence of their own space-charge fields. Hence, this type of emission is not limited by the Langmuir-Child law as are conventional emission methods. Charge separation and electron emission can be achieved by rapid switching of the spontaneous, ferroelectric polarization. Polarization switching may be induced by application of electrical-field or mechanical-pressure pulses, as well as by thermal heating or laser illumination of the ferroelectric emitter. At higher emission intensities plasma formation assists the FE emission and leads to a strong growth of emitted current amplitude, which is no longer limited by the FE material and the surface properties. The most attractive features of FE emission are robustness and ease of manipulation of the emitter cathodes which can be transported through atmospheric air and used without any problems in vacuum, low-pressure gas or plasma environments. Large-area arrangements of multiple emitters, switched in interleaved mode, can produce electron beams of any shape, current amplitude or time structure. The successful application of FE emission in accelerator technology has been demonstrated experimentally in several cases, e.g. for triggering high-power gas switches, for photocathodes in electron guns, and for electron-beam generators intended to generate, neutralize and enhance ion beams in ion sources and ion linacs. Other applications can be envisaged in microwave power generators and in the fields of electronics and vacuum microelectronics.