Single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET) is one of the most general and adaptable single-molecule techniques. Despite the explosive growth in the application of smFRET to answer biological questions in the last decade, the technique has been practiced mostly by biophysicists. We provide a practical guide to using smFRET, focusing on the study of immobilized molecules that allow measurements of single-molecule reaction trajectories from 1 ms to many minutes. We discuss issues a biologist must consider to conduct successful smFRET experiments, including experimental design, sample preparation, single-molecule detection and data analysis. We also describe how a smFRET-capable instrument can be built at a reasonable cost with off-the-shelf components and operated reliably using well-established protocols and freely available software.