Activation of T cells is dependent on the organized and timely opening and closing of chromatin. Herein, we identify AP-1 as the transcription factor that directs most of this remodeling. Chromatin accessibility profiling showed quick opening of closed chromatin in naive T cells within 5 h of activation. These newly opened regions were strongly enriched for the AP-1 motif, and indeed, ChIP-seq demonstrated AP-1 binding at >70% of them. Broad inhibition of AP-1 activity prevented chromatin opening at AP-1 sites and reduced the expression of nearby genes. Similarly, induction of anergy in the absence of co-stimulation during activation was associated with reduced induction of AP-1 and a failure of proper chromatin remodeling. The translational relevance of these findings was highlighted by the substantial overlap of AP-1–dependent elements with risk loci for multiple immune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and allergic disease. Our findings define AP-1 as the key link between T cell activation and chromatin remodeling.