HIV-1 protease processes the Gag and Gag-Pol polyproteins into mature structural and functional proteins, including itself, and is therefore indispensable for viral maturation. The mature protease is active only as a dimer with each subunit contributing catalytic residues. The full-length transframe region protease precursor appears to be monomeric yet undergoes maturation via intramolecular cleavage of a putative precursor dimer, concomitant with the appearance of mature-like catalytic activity. How such intramolecular cleavage can occur when the amino and carboxy termini of the mature protease are part of an intersubunit beta-sheet located distal from the active site is unclear. Here we visualize the early events in N-terminal autoprocessing using an inactive mini-precursor with a four-residue N-terminal extension that mimics the transframe region protease precursor. Using paramagnetic relaxation enhancement, a technique that is exquisitely sensitive to the presence of minor species, we show that the mini-precursor forms highly transient, lowly populated (3-5%) dimeric encounter complexes that involve the mature dimer interface but occupy a wide range of subunit orientations relative to the mature dimer. Furthermore, the occupancy of the mature dimer configuration constitutes a very small fraction of the self-associated species (accounting for the very low enzymatic activity of the protease precursor), and the N-terminal extension makes transient intra- and intersubunit contacts with the substrate binding site and is therefore available for autocleavage when the correct dimer orientation is sampled within the encounter complex ensemble.