The activation of naive CD8 T cells typically results in the formation of effector cells (TE) as well as phenotypically distinct memory cells that are retained over time. Memory CD8 T cells can be further subdivided into central memory, effector memory (TEM), and tissue-resident memory (TRM) subsets, which cooperate to confer immunological protection. Using mixed bone marrow chimeras and adoptive transfer studies in which CD8 T cells either do or do not express IL-21R, we discovered that under homeostatic or lymphopenic conditions IL-21 acts directly on CD8 T cells to favor the accumulation of TE/TEM populations. The inability to perceive IL-21 signals under competitive conditions also resulted in lower levels of TRM phenotype cells and reduced expression of granzyme B in the small intestine. IL-21 differentially promoted the expression of the chemokine receptor CX3CR1 and the integrin α4β7 on CD8 T cells primed in vitro and on circulating CD8 T cells in the mixed bone marrow chimeras. The requirement for IL-21 to establish CD8 TE/TEM and TRM subsets was overcome by acute lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus infection; nevertheless, memory virus-specific CD8 T cells remained dependent on IL-21 for optimal accumulation in lymphopenic environments. Overall, this study reveals a context-dependent role for IL-21 in sustaining effector phenotype CD8 T cells and influencing their migratory properties, accumulation, and functions.