ABSTRACT. This paper develops a new contrast process for parametric inference of general hidden Markov models, when the hidden chain has a non-compact state space. This contrast is based on the conditional likelihood approach, often used for ARCH-type models. We prove the strong consistency of the conditional likelihood estimators under appropriate conditions. The method is applied to the Kalman filter (for which this contrast and the exact likelihood lead to asymptotically equivalent estimators) and to the discretely observed stochastic volatility models.