More than 20 million people have died since the discovery of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), yet a broadly reactive AIDS vaccine remains elusive. Neutralizing antibody (nAb) response-based vaccine strategies were the first to be tested; however, when the difficulty in neutralizing primary HIV isolates was recognized, vaccine development focused instead on generating cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) responses. Recently, interest in anti-HIV nAbs has been revived by the impressive protection achieved in primates given passive immunization with neutralizing monoclonal antibodies (nmAbs) isolated from HIV clade B-infected individuals. The nmAbs used in these studies target conserved, functionally important epitopes in HIV gp120 and gp41. Regimens involving combinations of such human nmAbs or high-dose single-agent nmAb protected monkeys against intravenous (iv) and mucosal challenges with simian-human immunodeficiency virus (SHIV) strains encoding X4, X4R5 or R5 HIV env genes. In several such studies, sterilizing immunity was achieved, thus providing proof-of-concept that nAbs targeting conserved epitopes can be fully protective. The existence of these broadly reactive nmAbs suggests that it may be possible to design immunogens capable of inducing similar nAb responses by active vaccination. Unraveling the three-dimensional structures involved in the nmAb- HIV Env epitope interactions may facilitate the future development of a potent AIDS vaccine. This review is focused on the importance of nAbs in protecting against HIV infection or in containing viral spread, with particular emphasis on the successful use of nmAbs in passive immunization studies. The implications of the data from these studies on AIDS vaccine design in general are also discussed.