Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) radio frequency (RF) switches hold great promise in a myriad of commercial, aerospace, and military applications including cellular phones and phased array antennas. However, there is limited understanding of the factors determining the performance and reliability of these devices. Fundamental studies of hot-switched DC (gold versus gold) and capacitive (gold versus silicon nitride) MEMS RF switch contacts were conducted in a controlled air environment at MEMS-scale forces using a micro/nanoadhesion apparatus as a switch simulator. This paper reviews key experimental results from the switch simulator and how they relate to failure mechanisms of MEMS switches. For DC switch contacts, electric current had a profound effect on deformation mechanisms, adhesion, contact resistance (R), and reliability/durability. At low current (1-10 μA), junction growth/force relaxation, slightly higher R, and switching induced adhesion growth were prominent. At high current (1-10 mA), asperity melting, slightly lower R, and shorting were present. Adhesion increased during cycling at low current and was linked to the creation of smooth contact surfaces, increased van der Waals interaction, and chemical bonding. Surface roughening by nanowire formation (which also caused shorting) prevented adhesion at high current. Aging of the contacts in air led to hydrocarbon adsorption and less adhesion. Studies of capacitive switches demonstrated that excessive adhesion was the primary failure mechanism and that both mechanical and electrical effects were contributing factors. The mechanical effect is adhesion growth with cycling due to surface smoothening, which allows increased van der Waals interaction and chemical bonding. The electrical effect on adhesion is due to electrostatic force associated with trapped parasitic charge in the dielectric, and was only observed after operating the switch at 40 V bias and above. The two effects are additive; however, the electrical effect was not present until the surfaces were worn smooth by cycling. Surface smoothening increases the electric field in the dielectric, which results in trapped charges, alterations in electrostatic force, and higher adhesion. Excessive adhesion can explain decreased lifetime at high bias voltage previously reported with actual capacitive MEMS switches. Switch sticking, self actuation, failure to actuate, and self release can all be explained by the experimental results.