Persistent viruses cause chronic disease, and threaten the lives of immunosuppressed individuals. Here, we elucidate a mechanism supporting the persistence of human adenovirus (AdV), a virus that can kill immunosuppressed patients. Cell biological analyses, genetics and chemical interference demonstrate that one of five AdV membrane proteins, the E3-19K glycoprotein specifically triggers the unfolded protein response (UPR) sensor IRE1α in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), but not other UPR sensors, such as protein kinase R-like ER kinase (PERK) and activating transcription factor 6 (ATF6). The E3-19K lumenal domain activates the IRE1α nuclease, which initiates mRNA splicing of X-box binding protein-1 (XBP1). XBP1s binds to the viral E1A-enhancer/promoter sequence, and boosts E1A transcription, E3-19K levels and lytic infection. Inhibition of IRE1α nuclease interrupts the five components feedforward loop, E1A, E3-19K, IRE1α, XBP1s, E1A enhancer/promoter. This loop sustains persistent infection in the presence of the immune activator interferon, and lytic infection in the absence of interferon.