Transcription by RNA polymerase (RNAP) is interrupted by pauses that play diverse regulatory roles. Although individual pauses have been studied in vitro, the determinants of pauses in vivo and their distribution throughout the bacterial genome remain unknown. Using nascent transcript sequencing, we identified a 16-nucleotide consensus pause sequence in Escherichia coli that accounts for known regulatory pause sites as well as ˜20,000 new in vivo pause sites. In vitro single-molecule and ensemble analyses demonstrate that these pauses result from RNAP-nucleic acid interactions that inhibit next-nucleotide addition. The consensus sequence also leads to pausing by RNAPs from diverse lineages and is enriched at translation start sites in both E. coli and Bacillus subtilis. Our results thus reveal a conserved mechanism unifying known and newly identified pause events.