The discovery of a near-infrared (NIR, 650-900 nm) fluorescent chromophore hemicyanine dye with high structural tailorability is of great significance in the field of detection, bioimaging, and medical therapeutic applications. It exhibits many outstanding advantages including absorption and emission in the NIR region, tunable spectral properties, high photostability as well as a large Stokes shift. These properties are superior to those of conventional fluorogens, such as coumarin, fluorescein, naphthalimides, rhodamine, and cyanine. Researchers have made remarkable progress in developing activity-based multifunctional fluorescent probes based on hemicyanine skeletons for monitoring vital biomolecules in living systems through the output of fluorescence/photoacoustic signals, and integration of diagnosis and treatment of diseases using chemotherapy or photothermal/photodynamic therapy or combination therapy. These achievements prompted researchers to develop more smart fluorescent probes using a hemicyanine fluorogen as a template. In this review, we begin by describing the brief history of the discovery of hemicyanine dyes, synthetic approaches, and design strategies for activity-based functional fluorescent probes. Then, many selected hemicyanine-based probes that can detect ions, small biomolecules, overexpressed enzymes and diagnostic reagents for diseases are systematically highlighted. Finally, potential drawbacks and the outlook for future investigation and clinical medicine transformation of hemicyanine-based activatable functional probes are also discussed.