The study of spatial and temporal characteristics of land use/cover is important for the conservation and rational development of land resources in the Yellow River Basin, and can provide important references for the implementation of ecological conservation and high-quality development strategies in the Yellow River Basin. The year-by-year land use/cover data of the Yellow River Basin from 1980 to 2021 was used to explore the land use/cover change characteristics of the Yellow River Basin for nearly 40 years by using Mann-Kendall and sliding t-test, geographic information TUPU, standard deviation ellipse and gravity center transfer model. The results show that (1) The forest, shrubland, water, and construction land significantly increasing and cropland, grassland, and wetland significantly decreasing from 1980 to 2021. (2) The periods of land use/cover change in the watershed can be divided into 1980-1992, 1993-2001, 2002-2012, and 2013-2021, and the quantitative structure is gradually characterized by rapid changes. The construction land, wetland and water are more sensitive to change. The land-use structure is gradually becoming more balanced, showing phased changes that are highly correlated with the implementation of major strategic measures and are more in line with the phasing. (3) The middle and upper reaches of the basin are dominated by the 2012-2021 and intermittent change type, interconversion of cropland and grassland, while the lower reaches are dominated by the 2001-2012 and 2012-2021 change type, conversion of cropland to construction land and grassland. Frequent changes are found in northern Ningxia, eastern Inner Mongolia and some areas distributed along the Yellow River system in the basin. (4) The centers of gravity of wetland, water and construction land all move westward, showing concentrated distribution to the southwest, scattered to the east and concentrated distribution to the northwest, respectively. The overall trend of land use structure has become better under the policy direction, and in the future we should focus on wetlands as well as areas with frequent land use changes.