Summary. The aims of the study were to verify the long-term effect of time on viral clearance in hepatitis C virus (HCV) patients and to find out factors possibly associated with disease progression. A total of 1641 patients recruited from eight European centres in 1996–1997 were re-analysed 5–7 years after inclusion. The occurrence of decompensated cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and liver transplantation was analysed in relation to different host and viral factors. Ninety-three per cent of the HCV patients who had cleared the virus (spontaneously or after antiviral therapy) remained HCV-RNA-negative during follow up and may be considered as ‘cured’. Among patients who were sustained responders at inclusion, 2.3% developed liver complications during follow up, and 31% of non-responders did. Advanced age at infection and presence of the human leucocyte antigen (HLA) DRB1*1201–3 allele were possibly associated with a higher rate of progression to decompensated cirrhosis or HCC. Decompensated cirrhosis might be further associated with male gender, non-response to previous therapy, and lack of HLA DRB1*1301 allele, whereas HCC seems to be associated with the presence of the HLA DQ02 allele. Long-term follow up of HCV patients indicates that virological response persists over time and is associated with a very low incidence of liver complications. Advanced age at inclusion, advanced age at infection, viral genotype 1, non-response to previous therapy and possibly some specific HLA alleles are factors independently associated with a faster rate of progression towards liver complications. The large proportion of patients lost to follow up stresses the need for a strengthened and optimized management of HCV patients.