Using a combination of biochemistry, mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy and cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), we have been able to show that quasi-equivalent conformer switching in the coat protein (CP) of an RNA bacteriophage (MS2) is controlled by a sequence-specific RNA–protein interaction. The RNA component of this complex is an RNA stem-loop encompassing just 19 nts from the phage genomic RNA, which is 3569 nts in length. This binding results in the conversion of a CP dimer from a symmetrical conformation to an asymmetric one. Only when both symmetrical and asymmetrical dimers are present in solution is assembly of the T = 3 phage capsid efficient. This implies that the conformers, we have characterized by NMR correspond to the two distinct quasi-equivalent conformers seen in the 3D structure of the virion. An icosahedrally-averaged single particle cryo-EM reconstruction of the wild-type phage (to ∼9 Å resolution) has revealed icosahedrally ordered density encompassing up to 90% of the single-stranded RNA genome. The RNA is seen with a novel arrangement of two concentric shells, with connections between them along the 5-fold symmetry axes. RNA in the outer shell interacts with each of the 90 CP dimers in the T = 3 capsid and although the density is icosahedrally averaged, there appears to be a different average contact at the different quasi-equivalent protein dimers: precisely the result that would be expected if protein conformer switching is RNA-mediated throughout the assembly pathway. This unprecedented RNA structure provides new constraints for models of viral assembly and we describe experiments aimed at probing these. Together, these results suggest that viral genomic RNA folding is an important factor in efficient assembly, and further suggest that RNAs that could sequester viral CPs but not fold appropriately could act as potent inhibitors of viral assembly.