Cell-extracellular matrix interactions have been studied extensively using cells cultured in vitro. These studies indicate that focal adhesion (FA)-based cell-extracellular matrix interactions are essential for cell anchoring and cell migration. Whether FAs play a similarly important role in vivo is less clear. Here, we summarize the formation and function of FAs in cultured cells and review how FAs transmit and sense force in vitro. Using examples from animal studies, we also describe the role of FAs in cell anchoring during morphogenetic movements and cell migration in vivo. Finally, we conclude by discussing similarities and differences in how FAs function in vitro and in vivo.