Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a highly heritable chronic inflammatory arthritis characterized by osteoproliferation, fusion of affected joints and systemic manifestations. Many disease associations for AS have been reported through genome-wide association studies; however, identifying modulated genes and functional mechanism remains challenging. This review summarizes current genetic associations involving AS and describes strategic approaches for functional follow-up of disease-associated variants. Fine mapping using methods leveraging Bayesian approaches are outlined. Evidence highlighting the importance of context specificity for regulatory variants is reviewed, noting current evidence in AS for the relevant cell and tissue type to conduct such analyses. Technological advances for understanding the regulatory landscape within which functional variants may act are discussed using exemplars. Approaches include defining regulatory elements based on chromatin accessibility, effects of variants on genes at a distance through evidence of physical interactions (chromatin conformation capture), expression quantitative trait loci mapping and single-cell methodologies. Opportunities for mechanistic studies to investigate the function of specific variants, regulatory elements and genes enabled by genome editing using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/Cas9 are also described. Further progress in our understanding of the genetics of AS through functional genomic and epigenomic approaches offers new opportunities to understand mechanism and develop innovative treatments.