Persons with unrecognized HIV infection forgo timely clinical intervention and may unknowingly transmit HIV to partners. However, in the USA, unrecognized infection and late diagnosis are common. To understand barriers and facilitators to HIV testing and care, we conducted a qualitative study of 24 HIV infected persons attending a Southeastern HIV clinic who presented with clinically advanced illness. The primary barrier to HIV testing prior to diagnosis was perception of risk; consequently, most participants were diagnosed after the onset of clinical symptoms. While most patients were anxious to initiate care rapidly after diagnosis, some felt frustrated by the passive process of connecting to specialty care. The first visit with an HIV care provider was identified as critical in the coping process for many patients. Implications for the implementation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention HIV routine screening guidelines are discussed.