As an important component of microzooplankton, ciliates play a key role in matter cycling and energy flow in marine planktonic ecosystems. Studies of planktonic ciliate have been extensive in the South China Sea (SCS) over the last 20 years. Here, we summarize the recent progress on the diversity and distribution of this group in the SCS. This includes that in: (1) the waters covering the intertidal zone of the northern SCS, most studies have focused on taxonomy, with 71 species collected, identified, and described (with ~ 40% new species); (2) neritic waters distribution patterns have been examined at a regional scale, with ciliates displaying significant spatial variations and seasonal dynamics; (3) in oceanic waters, there has been a focus on ciliate distribution in north, centre, and south regions, where mesoscale physical processes play roles in controlling distributions, and noticeable vertical variations occur. More generally, some studies examine the influences of environment variables on ciliates, and indicate that chlorophyll a concentration is commonly positively correlated with ciliates abundance. In addition, some significant findings are summarized, the limitations of past studies are considered, and recommendations are made for future work on planktonic ciliates in SCS.