This review is based on ca. 260 publications, 93 of which included data on the temporal and spatial variation of the concentration of small ions (<1.6 nm in diameter) especially in the lower troposphere, chemical composition, or formation and growth rates of sub-3 nm ions. This information was collected on tables and figures. The small ions exist all the time in the atmosphere, and the average concentrations of positive and negative small ions are typically 200-2500 cm(-3). However, concentrations up to 5000 cm(-3) have been observed. The results are in agreement with observations of ion production rates in the atmosphere. We also summarised observations on the conversion of small ions to intermediate ions, which can act as embryos for new atmospheric aerosol particles. Those observations include the formation rates (J(2)[ion]) of 2-nm intermediate ions, growth rates (GR[ion]) of sub-3 nm ions, and information on the chemical composition of the ions. Unfortunately, there were only a few studies which presented J(2)[ion] and GR[ion]. Based on the publications, the formation rates of 2-nm ions were 0-1.1 cm(-3) s(-1), while the total 2-nm particle formation rates varied between 0.001 and 60 cm(-3) s(-1). Due to small changes in J(2)[ion], the relative importance of ions in 2-nm particle formation was determined by the large changes in J(2)[tot], and, accordingly the contribution of ions increased with decreasing J(2)[tot]. Furthermore, small ions were observed to activate for growth earlier than neutral nanometer-sized particles and at lower saturation ratio of condensing vapours.