Intracellular proteins continuously turn over by degradation and synthesis in all organ tissues. Owing to its irreversible nature, protein degradation is a highly selective process to avoid irreparable breakdown of cellular constituents, thereby disrupting cellular stability, integrity and signalling. The majority of intracellular proteins are degraded by the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), a multi-enzyme process that involves the covalent conjugation of ubiquitin to a substrate protein and its recognition and degradation by the core multicomponent proteolytic complex of the UPS, the proteasome. In addition to labelling misfolded, damaged, aggregation-prone and intact but unneeded proteins for proteasomal degradation, ubiquitylation regulates a multitude of cellular processes, such as transcription, translation, endocytosis, and receptor activity and subcellular localization. In addition, the proteasome generates peptides for antigen presentation in the immune system and for further degradation by peptidases to provide amino acids for protein biosynthesis and gluconeogenesis. Alterations of the UPS or of protein substrates that render them more or less susceptible to degradation are responsible for disorders associated with renal cell dysfunction. In this Review, we provide insight into the elegant and complex nature of UPS-mediated proteostasis and focus on its established and potential roles in renal cell physiology and pathophysiology.