Head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC) is the sixth most common malignancy worldwide, and despite advances in cytotoxic, surgical and radiation techniques, outcomes are still poor in those with both locally advanced and metastatic diseases. The need for development of better therapeutics along with a greater understanding of the relationship between the immune system and malignancies has led to a new therapeutic modality, immune modulators, particularly checkpoint inhibitors in HNSCC. It is now well recognized that HNSCC circumvents crucial pathways utilized by the immune system to escape surveillance. These hijacked pathways include impairing tumor antigen presentation machinery and co-opting checkpoint receptors. This understanding has led to the development of monoclonal antibodies targeting checkpoint receptors and has resulted in promising outcomes in HNSCC. This article describes the mechanisms that HNSCC utilizes to escape immune surveillance, clinical impact of checkpoint inhibitors (with a focus on pembrolizumab), ongoing studies, and future directions.