Cortical neurons process information on a background of spontaneous, ongoing activity with distinct spatiotemporal profiles defining different cortical states. During wakefulness, cortical states alter constantly in relation to behavioral context, attentional level or general motor activity. In this review article, we will discuss our current understanding of cortical states in awake rodents, how they are controlled, their impact on sensory processing, and highlight areas for future research. A common observation in awake rodents is the rapid change in spontaneous cortical activity from high-amplitude, low-frequency (LF) fluctuations, when animals are quiet, to faster and smaller fluctuations when animals are active. This transition is typically thought of as a change in global brain state but recent work has shown variation in cortical states across regions, indicating the presence of a fine spatial scale control system. In sensory areas, the cortical state change is mediated by at least two convergent inputs, one from the thalamus and the other from cholinergic inputs in the basal forebrain. Cortical states have a major impact on the balance of activity between specific subtypes of neurons, on the synchronization between nearby neurons, as well as the functional coupling between distant cortical areas. This reorganization of the activity of cortical networks strongly affects sensory processing. Thus cortical states provide a dynamic control system for the moment-by-moment regulation of cortical processing.