The NS3 helicase is essential for cytoplasmic RNA replication by the hepatitis C virus, and it is a representative member of helicase superfamily 2 (SF2). NS3 is an important model system for understanding unwinding activities of DExH/D proteins, and it has been the subject of extensive structural and mutational analyses. Despite intense interest in NS3, the molecular and kinetic mechanisms for RNA unwinding by this helicase have remained obscure. We have developed a combinatorial, time-resolved approach for monitoring the microscopic behaviour of a helicase at each nucleotide of a duplex substrate. By applying this analysis to NS3, we have independently established the 'physical' and 'kinetic' step size for unwinding of RNA (18 base pairs, in each case), which we relate to the stoichiometry of the functional, translocating species. Having obtained microscopic unwinding rate constants at each position along the duplex, we demonstrate that NS3 unwinds RNA through a highly coordinated cycle of fast ripping and local pausing that occurs with regular spacing along the duplex substrate, much like the stepping behaviour of cytoskeletal motor proteins.