Since the recovery of infectious RNA transcripts from full-length cDNA clones, alphavirus genome RNAs have been engineered to allow expression of heterologous RNAs and proteins. The highest levels of expression of heterologous products are achieved when the viral structural genes are replaced by the heterologous coding sequences. Such recombinant RNAs are self-replicating (replicons) and can be introduced into cells as naked RNA, but they require trans complementation to be packaged and released from cells as infectious virion particles. In this report, we describe a series of defective Sindbis virus helper RNAs which can be used for packaging Sindbis virus RNA replicons. The defective helper RNAs contain the cis-acting sequences required for replication as well as the subgenomic RNA promoter which drives expression of the structural protein genes. In cells cotransfected with both the replicon and defective helper RNAs, viral nonstructural proteins translated from the replicon RNA allow replication and transcription of the defective helper RNA to produce the virion structural proteins. A series of defective helper RNAs were compared for the ability to package the replicon RNA as well as for the ability to be replicated and packaged. One defective helper RNA not only packaged the replicon but also was itself encapsidated and would be useful under conditions in which extensive amplification is advantageous. Other defective helper RNAs were able to package the replicon efficiently but were packaged very poorly themselves. These helpers should be useful for applications in which expression of the viral structural proteins or virus spread is not desired.