The prognosis for patients with oral squamous cell carcinoma remains poor in spite of advances in therapy of many other malignancies. Early diagnosis and treatment remains the key to improved patient survival. Because the scalpel biopsy for diagnosis is invasive and has potential morbidity, it is reserved for evaluating highly suspicious lesions and not for the majority of oral lesions which are clinically not suspicious. Furthermore, scalpel biopsy has significant interobserver and intraobserver variability in the histologic diagnosis of dysplasia. There is an urgent need to devise critical diagnostic tools for early detection of oral dysplasia and malignancy that are practical, noninvasive and can be easily performed in an out-patient set-up. Diagnostic tests for early detection include brush biopsy, toluidine blue staining, autofluorescence, salivary proteomics, DNA analysis, biomarkers and spectroscopy. This state of the art review critically examines these tests and assesses their value in identifying oral squamous cell carcinoma and its precursor lesions.