Deep-blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) (emitting at wavelengths of less than 450 nm) are important for solid-state lighting, vivid displays and high-density information storage. Colloidal quantum dots, typically based on heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, are promising candidates for deep-blue LEDs, but these have so far had external quantum efficiencies lower than 1.7%. Here we present deep-blue light-emitting materials and devices based on carbon dots. The carbon dots produce emission with a narrow full-width at half-maximum (about 35 nm) with high photoluminescence quantum yield (70% ± 10%) and a colour coordinate (0.15, 0.05) closely approaching the standard colour Rec. 2020 (0.131, 0.046) specification. Structural and optical characterization, together with computational studies, reveal that amine-based passivation accounts for the efficient and high-colour-purity emission. Deep-blue LEDs based on these carbon dots display high performance with a maximum luminance of 5,240 cd m−2 and an external quantum efficiency of 4%, notably exceeding that of previously reported quantum-tuned solution-processed deep-blue LEDs.