Most alphaviruses (family Togaviridae) including Sindbis virus (SINV) and other human pathogens, are transmitted by arthropods. The first open reading frame in their positive strand RNA genome encodes for the non-structural polyprotein, a precursor to four separate subunits of the replicase. The replicase interacts with cis-acting elements located near the intergenic region and at the ends of the viral RNA genome. A trans-replication assay was developed and used to analyse the template requirements for nine alphavirus replicases. Replicases of alphaviruses of the Semliki Forest virus complex were able to cross-utilize each other's templates as well as those of outgroup alphaviruses. Templates of outgroup alphaviruses, including SINV and the mosquito-specific Eilat virus, were promiscuous; in contrast, their replicases displayed a limited capacity to use heterologous templates, especially in mosquito cells. The determinants important for efficient replication of template RNA were mapped to the 5' region of the genome. For SINV these include the extreme 5'- end of the genome and sequences corresponding to the first stem-loop structure in the 5' untranslated region. Mutations introduced in these elements drastically reduced infectivity of recombinant SINV genomes. The trans-replicase tools and approaches developed here can be instrumental in studying alphavirus recombination and evolution, but can also be applied to study other viruses such as picornaviruses, flaviviruses and coronaviruses.