Rodent models for arthritis implicate a role for complement in disease development and progression. In humans, complement deposition has been observed in inflamed synovia of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. In this study we analysed whether genetic variants of complement component C1q predispose to RA. We genotyped single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in and around the C1q genes, C1qA, C1qB and C1qC, in a Dutch set of 845 RA cases and 1046 controls. Replication was sought in a sample set from North America (868 cases/1193 controls), and a meta-analysis was performed in a combined samples set of 8000 cases and 23 262 controls of European descent. We determined C1q serum levels in relation to C1q genotypes. In the discovery phase, five of the 13 SNPs tested in the C1q genes showed a significant association with RA. Additional analysis of the genomic area around the C1q genes revealed that the strongest associating SNPs were confined to the C1q locus. Within the C1q locus we observed no additional signal independent of the strongest associating SNP, rs292001 [odds ratio (OR) = 0·72 (0·58–0·88), P = 0·0006]. The variants of this SNP were associated with different C1q serum levels in healthy controls (P = 0·006). Interestingly, this SNP was also associated significantly in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) from the North American Rheumatoid Arthritis Consortium study, confirming the association with RA [OR = 0·83 (0·69–1·00), P = 0·043]. Combined analysis, including integrated data from six GWAS studies, provides support for the genetic association. Genetic variants in C1q are correlated with C1q levels and may be a risk for the development of RA.