This paper describes the growth of Cd doped ZnO thin films on a glass substrate via sol-gel spin coating technique. The effect of Cd doping on ZnO thin films was investigated using X-ray diffraction (XRD), UV-Vis spectroscopy, photoluminescence spectroscopy, I–V characteristics and field emission scanning electron microscopy (FESEM). X-ray diffraction patterns showed that the films have preferred orientation along (002) plane with hexagonal wurtzite structure. The average crystallite sizes decreased from 24 nm to 9 nm, upon increasing of Cd doping. The films transmittance was found to be very high (92 to 95 %) in the visible region of solar spectrum. The optical band gap of ZnO and Cd doped ZnO thin films was calculated using the transmittance spectra and was found to be in the range of 3.30 to 2.77 eV. On increasing Cd concentration in ZnO binary system, the absorption edge of the films showed the red shifting. Photoluminescence spectra of the films showed the characteristic band edge emission centred over 377 to 448 nm. Electrical characterization revealed that the films had semiconducting and light sensitive behaviour.