The matrix (M) protein of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) plays an important role in virus assembly through specific interactions with RSV nucleocapsids and envelope glycoproteins in the cytoplasm as well as with the host cell membrane. We have previously shown that M localizes to the nucleus of infected cells at an early stage in the RSV infection cycle, where it may be instrumental in inhibiting host cell processes. The present study uses transient expression of M as well as a truncated green fluorescent protein (GFP) fusion derivative to show for the first time that M is able to localize in the nucleus in the absence of other RSV gene products, through the action of amino acids 110-183, encompassing the nucleic acid binding regions of the protein, that are sufficient to target GFP to the nucleus. Using native PAGE, ELISA-based binding assays, a novel Alphascreen assay, and an in vitro nuclear transport assay, we show that M is recognized directly by the importin beta1 nuclear import receptor, which mediates its nuclear import in concert with the guanine nucleotide-binding protein Ran. Retention of M in the nucleus through binding to nuclear components, probably mediated by the putative zinc finger domain of M, also contributes to M nuclear accumulation. This is the first report of the importin binding and nuclear import properties of a gene product from a negative sense RNA virus, with implications for the function of RSV M and possibly other viral M proteins in the nucleus of infected cells.