Despite the major advances in the development of treatments for bulimia nervosa, drop-outs and a lack of engagement in treatment, continue to be problems. Recent studies suggest that the transtheoretical model of change may be applicable to bulimia nervosa. The aim of this study was to examine the roles of readiness to change and therapeutic alliance in determining engagement and outcome in the first phase of treatment. One hundred and twenty five consecutive female patients meeting DSM-IV criteria for bulimia nervosa took part in a randomised controlled treatment trial. The first phase of the sequential treatment compared four sessions of either cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or motivational enhancement therapy (MET) in engaging patients in treatment and reducing symptoms. Patients in the action stage showed greater improvement in symptoms of binge eating than did patients in the contemplation stage. Higher pretreatment scores on action were also related to the development of a better therapeutic alliance (as perceived by patients) after four weeks. However, pretreatment stage of change did not predict who dropped out of treatment. There were no differences between MET and CBT in terms of reducing bulimic symptoms or in terms of developing a therapeutic alliance or increasing readiness to change. The results suggest that the transtheoretical model of change may have some validity in the treatment of bulimia nervosa although current measures of readiness to change may require modification. Overall, readiness to change is more strongly related to improvement and the development of a therapeutic alliance than the specific type of treatment.