Cadherin receptors have a well-established role in cell–cell adhesion, cell polarization and differentiation. However, some cadherins also promote cell and tissue movement during embryonic development and tumour progression. In particular, cadherin-11 is upregulated during tumour and inflammatory cell invasion, but the mechanisms underlying cadherin-11 stimulated cell migration are still incompletely understood. Here, we show that cadherin-11 localizes to focal adhesions and promotes adhesion to fibronectin in Xenopus neural crest, a highly migratory embryonic cell population. Transfected cadherin-11 also localizes to focal adhesions in different mammalian cell lines, while endogenous cadherin-11 shows focal adhesion localization in primary human fibroblasts. In focal adhesions, cadherin-11 co-localizes with β1-integrin and paxillin and physically interacts with the fibronectin-binding proteoglycan syndecan-4. Adhesion to fibronectin mediated by cadherin-11/syndecan-4 complexes requires both the extracellular domain of syndecan-4, and the transmembrane and cytoplasmic domains of cadherin-11. These results reveal an unexpected role of a classical cadherin in cell–matrix adhesion during cell migration.