OBJECTIVE--To identify risk factors for heterosexual transmission of HIV and to compare the efficiency of male to female and female to male transmission. DESIGN--Cohort study of heterosexual couples. Regular partners of HIV infected subjects were tested and both members of the couples interviewed every six months. HIV prevalence in partners was analysed according to the characteristics of the couples. SETTING--Nine European countries. SUBJECTS--563 couples comprising 156 female index patients with their 159 male partners and 400 male index patients with their 404 female partners. Partners reporting risk factors other than sexual contacts with the index patient were excluded. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--HIV infection in partners and high risk sexual behaviour. RESULTS--Overall, 19 (12%) male partners and 82 (20%) female partners were infected with HIV, suggesting that male to female transmission is 1.9 (95% confidence interval 1.1 to 3.3) times more effective than female to male transmission. An advanced stage of HIV infection in the index patient (odds ratio 17.6; 4.9 to 62.7) and sexual contacts during menses (3.4; 1.0 to 11.1) increased the risk of female to male transmission and stage of infection (2.7; 1.5 to 4.9), anal sex (5.1; 2.9 to 8.9), and age of the female partner (3.9; 1.2 to 13.0 for age > 45 years) increased the risk of male to female transmission. None of the 24 partners who had used condoms systematically since the first sexual contact was infected. CONCLUSIONS--Several factors which potentiate the risk of transmission through unprotected vaginal intercourse have been identified. Knowledge of these factors could be helpful for counselling patients infected with HIV and their sexual partners.