Sixteen or more castaways are split between two or more "Tribes", are taken to a remote isolated location and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for roughly 39 days. Frequent physical challenges are used to pit the tribes against each other for Rewards, such as food or luxuries, or for "Immunity", forcing the other tribe to attend "Tribal Council", where they must vote off one of their players. Once about half the players are remaining, the tribes are merged into a single tribe, and competitions are on an individual basis; winning Immunity prevents that player from being voted out, while several that are voted out at this stage form the game's "Jury". Once down to two or three people, a Final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members. The jury then votes for which player should be considered the "Sole Survivor" and win the $1 million prize. Survivor has introduced numerous modifications, or "twists", on the core rules in order to keep the players on their toes and to prevent players from relying on strategies that succeeded in prior seasons. These changes have included tribal switches, seasons starting with more than two tribes, the ability to exile a player from a tribe for a short time, Hidden Immunity Idols that players can use to save themselves at Tribal Council and a chance to return to regular gameplay after elimination through "Redemption Island".
The season begins with the arrival of 19 castaways in Fiji. The diverse group settles in with plenty of supplies and resources on their island to make an exceptionally comfortable camp. On day three, the castaways are split into two tribes, selected by one of their own as a result of events which occur before the first Immunity Challenge. The tribe that wins the first Immunity Challenge will return to the camp of copious resources, while the losing tribe must relocate to a new island with only a pot, a machete and a water source. In the end, the first Survivor is voted off the island.
Hunger and dehydration take their toll on the Ravu tribe, leaving one castaway barely able to stand. Earl comes face to face with a deadly sea snake and is forced to make a difficult decision. Despite enjoying all the luxuries won by his Moto tribe, Boo can't help getting himself into one misfortune after another. At the combined Immunity/Reward Challenge, Ravu vows to win in hopes of receiving desperately needed food and fire. Will they triumph despite being famished and dehydrated? As Tribal Council nears, one tribemate tries to redirect the votes by petitioning against the majority.
Although the Moto tribe is thriving at their camp, one member begins to experience serious health problems. Meanwhile, the Ravu tribe attempts to make fire with a pair of eyeglasses. In the end, the third person is voted off the island.
One castaway explodes with anger and starts throwing things around camp. Gary's health continues to deteriorate and a surprise twist at the Immunity Challenge could change the course of the game.
Earl and Yau-Man pool their knowledge from Exile Island to look for the hidden Immunity Idol. Ravu fights for desperately needed items at the Reward Challenge. A mental challenge for Immunity confuses one castaway, who ends up losing for their tribe. And, the sixth person is voted off the island.
The castaways face a major shake-up when new tribes are formed. When two all-new tribes are formed, some of the castaways experience true hardship while other newfound luxury and strategy changes when one Survivor realizes their old alliance no longer has the majority in their new tribe.
One castaway finds the hidden Immunity Idol and replaces it with a fake one, hoping that someone else plays the false idol at a future Tribal Council. Also, Lisi returns from Exile intending to redeem herself for having expressed thoughts of wanting to go home.
The two tribes learn a traditional Fijian dance and then must perform at the Reward Challenge, where the winning tribe is treated to a feast with the locals. Later at Tribal Council, a showdown pits two tribemates against each other in a war of words.
The remaining castaways merge into one tribe and find a major surprise waiting for them back at camp. When Mookie confesses to Dreamz that he's found the second hidden Immunity Idol, an angry Alex and Edgardo worry that Dreamz may tell the others.
Dreamz gets caught strategizing with Alex by members of his other alliance (Cassandra, Earl and Yau-Man), who now question his loyalty. A cat-and-mouse game plays out at Tribal Council, leaving one group in shock and the other gloating with victory.
Tribemates are faced with a decision to blackmail or betray in order to keep their alliance intact. Two castaways discover information which could change the course of the game. Later, another injury leaves Boo struggling at the Reward Challenge.
Alex makes a desperate move to save himself. Alex, who knows he's next to be voted off, attempts to sway Stacy back to his side. Boo's motor mouth is driving the tribe crazy. One castaway proposes a compelling argument at Tribal Council which causes others to rethink their strategy.
The winner of the car Reward Challenge tries to use the prize as a bargaining chip. Who will remain standing heading into the season finale?
One Survivor gets clever and presents a new strategy to several other tribemates. Will they take the bait? Will the new plan affect the outcome of the game? Later, the final Immunity Challenge has the Survivors hanging on for their lives. Who will outlast the others in this all-important battle for Immunity? And who will be named Sole Survivor?