We developed an endogenous in vitro reverse transcription assay to study the properties of priming and template switching during human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) replication. Reactions were primed with HIV reverse transcriptase (RT) and either a deoxyoligonucleotide primer (dPR) or tRNA(Lys-3), the natural primer for reverse transcription. The RNA templates utilized were the actual HIV sequences involved in the first template switch, namely a primer binding sequence (PBS)/U5/R RNA donor template and a R/U3 RNA acceptor template. Reverse transcription reactions using the latter templates and dPR or tRNA(Lys-3) as primers yielded four major products: (-)-strong-stop DNA, a partial template-switched DNA, full template-switched DNA, and a pseudo-PBS-primed product. Use of dPR resulted in three times less template switching than was obtained with tRNA(Lys-3). When reactions were primed with either dPR or tRNA(Lys-3), increases in acceptor:donor template ratios resulted in augmented template switching. Increasing the concentration of RT resulted in increased priming from the PBS but had no effect on the efficiency of template switching. Decreasing the extent of R region overlap resulted in a drop in efficiency of template switching. Decreases in the R region on the donor template also caused a drop in initiation of transcription that was primed by tRNA(Lys-3) from the PBS. In contrast, a corresponding reduction of the R region on the acceptor template had no effect on priming. We conclude that a transcriptional complex of tRNA(Lys-3) and RT may be associated not only with the PBS but also with other cis RNA sequences and secondary structures in a manner essential for efficient priming and template switching.