Abstract Pull-in instability as an inherently nonlinear and crucial effect continues to become increasingly important for the design of electrostatic MEMS and NEMS devices and ever more interesting scientifically. This review reports not only the overview of the pull-in phenomenon in electrostatically actuated MEMS and NEMS devices, but also the physical principles that have enabled fundamental insights into the pull-in instability as well as pull-in induced failures. Pull-in governing equations and conditions to characterize and predict the static, dynamic and resonant pull-in behaviors are summarized. Specifically, we have described and discussed on various state-of-the-art approaches for extending the travel range, controlling the pull-in instability and further enhancing the performance of MEMS and NEMS devices with electrostatic actuation and sensing. A number of recent activities and achievements methods for control of torsional electrostatic micromirrors are introduced. The on-going development in pull-in applications that are being used to develop a fundamental understanding of pull-in instability from negative to positive influences is included and highlighted. Future research trends and challenges are further outlined.