The mechanisms by which telomeres are distinguished from DNA double-strand breaks are poorly understood. Here we have defined the minimal requirements for the protection of telomeric DNA ends from nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ). Neither long, single-stranded overhangs nor t loop formation is essential to prevent NHEJ-mediated ligation of telomeric ends in vitro. Instead, a tandem array of 12 telomeric repeats is sufficient to impede illegitimate repair in a highly directional manner at nearby DNA ends. The polarity of end protection is consistent with the orientation of naturally occurring telomeres and is well suited to minimize interference between chromosome capping and the repair of DNA double-strand breaks in subtelomeric sequences. Biochemical fractionation and reconstitution revealed that telomere protection is mediated by a RAP1/TRF2 complex, providing evidence for a direct role for human RAP1 in the protection of telomeric DNA from NHEJ.