The structural complexity of glycosylation restrains the functional characterization of glycans. We present a versatile carbohydrate ligation technique based on the reaction of cyclic carbamates with primary amines. Cyclic-carbamate-derivatized carbohydrates can be added to primary amine-containing molecules in aqueous solution to yield glycoconjugates. This method enabled the presentation of carbohydrate epitopes on live animal cells, as shown by the acquisition of E-selectin binding sites on mouse MC-38 cells decorated with 3-fucosyllactose or 3-fucosyl-3-sialyllactose. Ligation of 3- and 6-sialyllactose to Escherichia coli demonstrated the importance of sialic acid linkages in regulating complement factor H binding. Proteins were modified with oligosaccharides to study their role in stimulating cytokine secretion by dendritic cells, thus pointing to interactions between glycoproteins and phosphoinositide 3-kinase signaling in controlling interleukin-12, tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-1β release. Overall, cyclic-carbamate-mediated ligation is useful to study the biology of carbohydrate epitopes on proteins and on cell membranes.