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Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) of single-particle specimens is used to determine the structure of proteins and macromolecular complexes without the need for crystals. Recent advances in detector technology and software algorithms now allow images of unprecedented quality to be recorded and structures to be determined at near-atomic resolution. However, compared with X-ray crystallography, cryo-EM is a young technique with distinct challenges. This primer explains the different steps and considerations involved in structure determination by single-particle cryo-EM to provide an overview for scientists wishing to understand more about this technique and the interpretation of data obtained with it, as well as a starting guide for new practitioners.