Health professionals and the public need to understand the natural history of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections of the cervix to best use the information provided by new molecular screening tests. We investigated outcomes of 800 carcinogenic HPV infections detected in 599 women at enrollment into a population-based cohort (Guanacaste, Costa Rica). For individual infections, we calculated cumulative proportions of three outcomes (viral clearance, persistence without cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 2 or worse [CIN2+], or persistence with new diagnosis of CIN2+) at successive 6-month time points for the first 30 months of follow-up. Cervical specimens were tested for carcinogenic HPV genotypes using an L1 degenerate-primer polymerase chain reaction method. Infections typically cleared rapidly, with 67% (95% confidence interval [CI] = 63% to 70%) clearing by 12 months. However, among infections that persisted at least 12 months, the risk of CIN2+ diagnosis by 30 months was 21% (95% CI = 15% to 28%). The risk of CIN2+ diagnosis was highest among women younger than 30 years with HPV-16 infections that persisted for at least 12 months (53%; 95% CI = 29% to 76%). These findings suggest that the medical community should emphasize persistence of cervical HPV infection, not single-time detection of HPV, in management strategies and health messages.