INTRODUCTION: Percutaneous renal biopsy (PRB) is a safe and effective modality for sampling kidney tissue. In limited circumstances, alternative methods for kidney biopsy may be indicated. Historical contraindications for PRB such as bleeding diathesis, morbid obesity and solitary kidney have been called into question in the literature. We present a review of the literature on PRB and the risks and benefits associated with alternatives. MATERIALS AND METHODS: A review of the literature was performed through MEDLINE and PubMed. A total of 726 articles exist under the query, "percutaneous renal biopsy." Large series describing indications, contraindications, procedural methods, and complications were extracted. To further investigate the risks of percutaneous renal biopsy on solitary kidneys, the literature on percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL) and biopsy of transplant kidneys were queried. Summaries of the data were compiled and synthesized in the body of the text. RESULTS: Percutaneous renal biopsy is safe and effective in the majority of kidney units for the evaluation of medical renal disease. Rates of bleeding range from 0.3%-7.4%, and nephrectomy rates are exceedingly low (0.1%-0.5%). Bleeding rates in open and laparoscopic approaches are comparable and range from 0%-7.0%, with major complications ranging from 0%-6.1%. CONCLUSIONS: The successes of percutaneous methods have called into question traditional contraindications such as solitary kidney, bleeding diathesis, and morbid obesity. In limited cases, alternative methods may be appropriate. We present a review of the literature for the various approaches and their associated complication rates.