Instabilities arising in unsteady boundary layers with reverse flow have been investigated experimentally. Experiments are conducted in a piston driven unsteady water tunnel with a shallow angle diffuser placed in the test section. The ratio of temporal (Πt) to spatial (Πx) component of the pressure gradient can be varied by a controlled motion of the piston. In all the experiments, the piston velocity variation with time is trapezoidal consisting of three phases: constant acceleration from rest, constant velocity and constant deceleration to rest. The adverse pressure gradient (and reverse flow) are due to a combination of spatial deceleration of the free stream in the diffuser and temporal deceleration of the free stream caused by the piston deceleration. The instability is usually initiated with the formation of one or more vortices. The onset of reverse flow in the boundary layer, location and time of formation of the first vortex and the subsequent flow evolution are studied for various values of the ratio Πx/(Πx+Πt) for the bottom and the top walls. Instability is due to the inflectional velocity profiles of the unsteady boundary layer. The instability is localized and spreads to the other regions at later times. At higher Reynolds numbers growth rate of instability is higher and localized transition to turbulence is observed. Scalings have been proposed for initial vortex formation time and wavelength of the instability vortices. Initial vortex formation time scales with convective time, δ/ΔU, where δ is the boundary layer thickness and ΔU is the difference of maximum and minimum velocities in the boundary layer. Non-dimensional vortex formation time based on convective time scale for the bottom and the top walls are found to be 23 and 30 respectively. Wavelength of instability vortices scales with the time averaged boundary layer thickness. © 2015 Elsevier Masson SAS.