Study of the mechanisms understanding how chemically functionalized carbon nanotubes internalize into mammalian cells is important in view of their design as new tools for therapeutic and diagnostic applications. The initial contact between the nanotube and the cell membrane allows elucidation of the types of interaction that are occurring and the contribution from the types of functional groups at the nanotube surface. Here we offer a combination of experimental and theoretical evidence of the initial phases of interaction between functionalized carbon nanotubes with model and cellular membranes. Both experimental and theoretical data reveal the critical parameters to determine direct translocation of the nanotubes through the membrane into the cytoplasm as a result of three distinct processes that can be summarized as landing, piercing and uptake. © 2013 The Royal Society of Chemistry.