The hallmarks of cancer were updated by Hanahan and Weinberg in 2011. Here we discuss the updated hallmarks in relation to what is known of the molecular and cellular processes underlying the development of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Several mechanisms are described, and recent surveys of HNSCC suggest a limited number of mutations, from which more mechanisms may emerge. There are also epigenetic changes to the control of normal processes. More than one mechanism underlies each hallmark. Processes essential to the development of HNSCC need not be essential to the proliferation of the fully developed tumour. Attention is paid to the emerging hallmarks, deregulation of cellular energy metabolism and evasion of immune destruction, and enabling characteristics, genome instability and mutation and tumour-promoting inflammation. HNSCC may adapt to hypoxia, suppress HLA expression, and express Toll-like receptors to facilitate inflammation, which support the proliferation of the tumour. © 2012 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.