Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) is a rapidly spreading, enveloped alphavirus causing fever, rash and debilitating polyarthritis. No specific treatment or vaccines are available to treat or prevent infection. For the rational design of vaccines and antiviral drugs, it is imperative to understand the molecular mechanisms involved in CHIKV infection. A critical step in the life cycle of CHIKV is fusion of the viral membrane with a host cell membrane. Here, we elucidate this process using ensemble-averaging liposome–virus fusion studies, in which the fusion behaviour of a large virus population is measured, and a newly developed microscopy-based single-particle assay, in which the fusion kinetics of an individual particle can be visualised. The combination of these approaches allowed us to obtain detailed insight into the kinetics, lipid dependency and pH dependency of hemifusion. We found that CHIKV fusion is strictly dependent on low pH, with a threshold of pH 6.2 and optimal fusion efficiency below pH 5.6. At this pH, CHIKV fuses rapidly with target membranes, with typically half of the fusion occurring within 2 s after acidification. Cholesterol and sphingomyelin in the target membrane were found to strongly enhance the fusion process. By analysing our single-particle data using kinetic models, we were able to deduce that the number of rate-limiting steps occurring before hemifusion equals about three. To explain these data, we propose a mechanistic model in which multiple E1 fusion trimers are involved in initiating the fusion process.