Aims/hypothesis: Although a family history of type 2 diabetes is a strong risk factor for the disease, the factors mediating this excess risk are poorly understood. In the InterAct case-cohort study, we investigated the association between a family history of diabetes among different family members and the incidence of type 2 diabetes, as well as the extent to which genetic, anthropometric and lifestyle risk factors mediated this association. Methods: A total of 13,869 individuals (including 6,168 incident cases of type 2 diabetes) had family history data available, and 6,887 individuals had complete data on all mediators. Country-specific Prentice-weighted Cox models were fitted within country, and HRs were combined using random effects meta-analysis. Lifestyle and anthropometric measurements were performed at baseline, and a genetic risk score comprising 35 polymorphisms associated with type 2 diabetes was created. Results: A family history of type 2 diabetes was associated with a higher incidence of the condition (HR 2.72, 95% CI 2.48, 2.99). Adjustment for established risk factors including BMI and waist circumference only modestly attenuated this association (HR 2.44, 95% CI 2.03, 2.95); the genetic score alone explained only 2% of the family history-associated risk of type 2 diabetes. The greatest risk of type 2 diabetes was observed in those with a biparental history of type 2 diabetes (HR 5.14, 95% CI 3.74, 7.07) and those whose parents had been diagnosed with diabetes at a younger age (<50 years; HR 4.69, 95% CI 3.35, 6.58), an effect largely confined to a maternal family history. Conclusions/interpretation: Prominent lifestyle, anthropometric and genetic risk factors explained only a marginal proportion of the excess risk associated with family history, highlighting the fact that family history remains a strong, independent and easily assessed risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Discovering factors that will explain the association of family history with type 2 diabetes risk will provide important insight into the aetiology of type 2 diabetes.