Optical stimulation has enabled important advances in the study of brain function and other biological processes, and holds promise for medical applications ranging from hearing restoration to cardiac pace making. In particular, pulsed laser stimulation using infrared wavelengths >1.5 μm has therapeutic potential based on its ability to directly stimulate nerves and muscles without any genetic or chemical pre-treatment. However, the mechanism of infrared stimulation has been a mystery, hindering its path to the clinic. Here we show that infrared light excites cells through a novel, highly general electrostatic mechanism. Infrared pulses are absorbed by water, producing a rapid local increase in temperature. This heating reversibly alters the electrical capacitance of the plasma membrane, depolarizing the target cell. This mechanism is fully reversible and requires only the most basic properties of cell membranes. Our findings underscore the generality of pulsed infrared stimulation and its medical potential.