Meeting the high demand for lanthanide-doped luminescent nanocrystals across a broad range of fields hinges upon the development of a robust synthetic protocol that provides rapid, just-in-time nanocrystal preparation. However, to date, almost all lanthanide-doped luminescent nanomaterials have relied on direct synthesis requiring stringent controls over crystal nucleation and growth at elevated temperatures. Here we demonstrate the use of a cation exchange strategy for expeditiously accessing large classes of such nanocrystals. By combining the process of cation exchange with energy migration, the luminescence properties of the nanocrystals can be easily tuned while preserving the size, morphology and crystal phase of the initial nanocrystal template. This post-synthesis strategy enables us to achieve upconversion luminescence in Ce3+ and Mn2+-activated hexagonal-phased nanocrystals, opening a gateway towards applications ranging from chemical sensing to anti-counterfeiting.