The effects of humic substances and low pH on short-term Cd uptake by Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata (Korshikov) Hindak and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii Dang were investigated under defined exposure conditions. The uptake experiments were run in the presence of either a synthetic organic ligand (nitrilotriacetate) or natural organic ligands (Suwannee River fulvic or humic acid). An ion-exchange method was used to measure the free Cd2+ concentrations in the exposure solutions. At pH 5, measured free Cd2+ concentrations agreed with estimations made using the geochemical equilibrium model WHAM, but at pH 7 the model overestimated complexation by both Suwannee River fulvic and humic acids compared with the ion-exchange measurements. Consistent with the metal internalization step being rate limiting for overall short-term uptake, intracellular Cd uptake was linear for exposure times less than 20 min at pH 5 or pH 7 for both algal species. After taking into account complexation of Cd in solution, Suwannee River humic substances had no additional effects on cadmium uptake at pH 7, as would be predicted by the free ion model. This absence of effects other than complexation persisted at pH 5, where the tendency of humic substances to adsorb to the algal cell surface is favored. Changes in pH strongly influenced Cd uptake, with the intracellular flux of Cd being at least 20 times lower at pH 5 than at pH 7 for P. subcapitata. Our results support models such as the free ion model or the biotic ligand model, in which humic substances act indirectly on Cd uptake by reducing the bioavailability of Cd by complexation in solution.