Nanoparticle size, surface charge and material composition are known to affect the uptake of nanoparticles by cells. However, whether nanoparticle shape affects transport across various barriers inside the cell remains unclear. Here we used pair correlation microscopy to show that polymeric nanoparticles with different shapes but identical surface chemistries moved across the various cellular barriers at different rates, ultimately defining the site of drug release. We measured how micelles, vesicles, rods and worms entered the cell and whether they escaped from the endosomal system and had access to the nucleus via the nuclear pore complex. Rods and worms, but not micelles and vesicles, entered the nucleus by passive diffusion. Improving nuclear access, for example with a nuclear localization signal, resulted in more doxorubicin release inside the nucleus and correlated with greater cytotoxicity. Our results therefore demonstrate that drug delivery across the major cellular barrier, the nuclear envelope, is important for doxorubicin efficiency and can be achieved with appropriately shaped nanoparticles.