Amorphous metal-oxide semiconductors have emerged as potential replacements for organic and silicon materials in thin-film electronics. The high carrier mobility in the amorphous state, and excellent large-area uniformity, have extended their applications to active-matrix electronics, including displays, sensor arrays and X-ray detectors1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Moreover, their solution processability and optical transparency have opened new horizons for low-cost printable and transparent electronics on plastic substrates8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. But metal-oxide formation by the sol–gel route requires an annealing step at relatively high temperature2, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, which has prevented the incorporation of these materials with the polymer substrates used in high-performance flexible electronics. Here we report a general method for forming high-performance and operationally stable metal-oxide semiconductors at room temperature, by deep-ultraviolet photochemical activation of sol–gel films. Deep-ultraviolet irradiation induces efficient condensation and densification of oxide semiconducting films by photochemical activation at low temperature. This photochemical activation is applicable to numerous metal-oxide semiconductors, and the performance (in terms of transistor mobility and operational stability) of thin-film transistors fabricated by this route compares favourably with that of thin-film transistors based on thermally annealed materials. The field-effect mobilities of the photo-activated metal-oxide semiconductors are as high as 14 and 7 cm2 V−1 s−1 (with an Al2O3 gate insulator) on glass and polymer substrates, respectively; and seven-stage ring oscillators fabricated on polymer substrates operate with an oscillation frequency of more than 340 kHz, corresponding to a propagation delay of less than 210 nanoseconds per stage.