Two decades ago successful transfection of antigen presenting cells (APC) in vivo was demonstrated which resulted in the induction of primary adaptive immune responses. Due to the good biocompatibility of plasmid DNA, their cost-efficient production and long shelf life, many researchers aimed to develop DNA vaccine-based immunotherapeutic strategies for treatment of infections and cancer, but also autoimmune diseases and allergies. This review aims to summarize our current knowledge on the course of action of DNA vaccines, and which factors are responsible for the poor immunogenicity in human so far. Important optimization steps that improve DNA transfection efficiency comprise the introduction of DNA-complexing nano-carriers aimed to prevent extracellular DNA degradation, enabling APC targeting, and enhanced endo/lysosomal escape of DNA. Attachment of virus-derived nuclear localization sequences facilitates nuclear entry of DNA. Improvements in DNA vaccine design include the use of APC-specific promotors for transcriptional targeting, the arrangement of multiple antigen sequences, the co-delivery of molecular adjuvants to prevent tolerance induction, and strategies to circumvent potential inhibitory effects of the vector backbone. Successful clinical use of DNA vaccines may require combined employment of all of these parameters, and combination treatment with additional drugs.