The surface urban heat island (SUHI), which represents the difference of land surface temperature (LST) in urban relativity to neighboring non-urban surfaces, is usually measured using satellite LST data. Over the last few decades, advancements of remote sensing along with spatial science have considerably increased the number and quality of SUHI studies that form the major body of the urban heat island (UHI) literature. This paper provides a systematic review of satellite-based SUHI studies, from their origin in 1972 to the present. We find an exponentially increasing trend of SUHI research since 2005, with clear preferences for geographic areas, time of day, seasons, research foci, and platforms/sensors. The most frequently studied region and time period of research are China and summer daytime, respectively. Nearly two-thirds of the studies focus on the SUHI/LST variability at a local scale. The Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM)/Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM+)/Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) and Terra/Aqua Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) are the two most commonly-used satellite sensors and account for about 78% of the total publications. We systematically reviewed the main satellite/sensors, methods, key findings, and challenges of the SUHI research. Previous studies confirm that the large spatial (local to global scales) and temporal (diurnal, seasonal, and inter-annual) variations of SUHI are contributed by a variety of factors such as impervious surface area, vegetation cover, landscape structure, albedo, and climate. However, applications of SUHI research are largely impeded by a series of data and methodological limitations. Lastly, we propose key potential directions and opportunities for future efforts. Besides improving the quality and quantity of LST data, more attention should be focused on understudied regions/cities, methods to examine SUHI intensity, inter-annual variability and long-term trends of SUHI, scaling issues of SUHI, the relationship between surface and subsurface UHIs, and the integration of remote sensing with field observations and numeric modeling.