Objective: Bipolar disorder has a wide range of clinical manifestations which may progress over time. The aim of this study was to test the applicability of a clinical staging model for bipolar disorder and to gain insight into the nature of the variables influencing progression through consecutive stages. Methods: Using retrospectively reported longitudinal life chart data of 99 subjects from the Stanley Foundation Bipolar Network Naturalistic Follow-up Study, the occurrence, duration and timely sequence of stages 2-4 were determined per month. A multi-state model was used to calculate progression rates and identify determinants of illness progression. Stages 0, 1 and several other variables were added to the multi-state model to determine their influence on the progression rates. Results: Five years after onset of BD (stage 2), 72% reached stage 3 (recurrent episodes) and 21% had reached stage 4 (continuous episodes), of whom 8% recovered back to stage 3. The progression from stage 2 to 3 was increased by a biphasic onset for both the depression-mania and the mania-depression course and by male sex. Conclusions: Staging is a useful model to determine illness progression in longitudinal life chart data. Variables influencing transition rates were successfully identified.