Insertion of some protein toxins into membranes proceeds through an unfolding step. The unfolding trigger can be the low pH in endosomes, exposure to body temperature, reduction of disulphide bonds or proteolytic cleavage occurring at the membrane surface. The insertion intermediates are not fully unfolded but have the features of a 'molten globule state' that is also observed at early stages of polypeptide folding. In this article, we review the evidence supporting these ideas and speculate about the implications of the molten globule intermediate for understanding the general mechanisms of protein insertion and translocation across membranes.