Bax is a key regulator of apoptosis that mediates the release of cytochrome c to the cytosol via oligomerization in the outer mitochondrial membrane before pore formation. However, the molecular mechanism of Bax assembly and regulation by other Bcl-2 members remains obscure. Here, by analysing the stoichiometry of Bax oligomers at the single-molecule level, we find that Bax binds to the membrane in a monomeric state and then self-assembles in <1min. Strikingly, active Bax does not exist in a unique oligomeric state, but as several different species based on dimer units. Moreover, we show that cBid activates Bax without affecting its assembly, while Bcl-xL induces the dissociation of Bax oligomers. On the basis of our experimental data and theoretical modelling, we propose a new mechanism for the molecular pathway of Bax assembly to form the apoptotic pore.