Activation of the human complement system leads to complement deposition on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and HIV-infected cells without causing efficient complement-mediated lysis. Even in the presence of HIV-specific antibodies, only a few particles are destroyed, demonstrating that HIV is intrinsically resistant to human complement. Here we report that, in addition to decay accelerating factor (DAF) being partially responsible, human complement factor H (CFH), a humoral negative regulator of complement activation, is most critical for this resistance. In the presence of HIV-specific antibodies, sera devoid of CFH (total genetic deficiency or normal human serum depleted of CFH by affinity chromatography) lysed free virus and HIV-infected but not uninfected cells. In the presence of CFH, lysis of HIV was only obtained when binding of CFH to gp41 was inhibited by a monoclonal antibody against a main CFH-binding site in gp41. Since CFH is an abundant protein in serum, and high local concentration of CFH can be obtained at the surface of HIV as the result of specific interactions of CFH with the HIV envelope, it is proposed that the resistance of HIV and HIV-infected cells against complement-mediated lysis in vivo is dependent on DAF and CFH and can be overcome by suppressing this protection. Neutralization of HIV may be achieved by antibodies against DAF and, more importantly, antibodies against CFH-binding sites on HIV envelope proteins.