With the recent global spread of a number of mosquito-borne viruses, there is an urgent need to understand the factors that contribute to the ability of viruses to expand into naïve populations. Using dengue and chikungunya viruses as case studies, we detail the necessary components of the expansion process: presence of the mosquito vector; introduction of the virus; and suitable conditions for local transmission. For each component we review the existing modelling approaches that have been used to understand recent emergence events or to assess the risk of future expansions. We identify gaps in our knowledge that are related to each of the distinct aspects of the human-mosquito transmission cycle: mosquito ecology; human-mosquito contact; mosquito-virus interactions; and human-virus interactions. Bridging these gaps poses challenges to both modellers and empiricists, but only through further integration of models and data will we improve our ability to better understand, and ultimately control, several infectious diseases that exert a significant burden on human health.