Store-operated calcium entry (SOCE) by calcium release activated calcium (CRAC) channels constitutes a primary route of calcium entry in most cells. Orai1 forms the pore subunit of CRAC channels and Stim1 is the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) resident Ca(2+) sensor. Upon store-depletion, Stim1 translocates to domains of ER adjacent to the plasma membrane where it interacts with and clusters Orai1 hexamers to form the CRAC channel complex. Molecular steps enabling activation of SOCE via CRAC channel clusters remain incompletely defined. Here we identify an essential role of α-SNAP in mediating functional coupling of Stim1 and Orai1 molecules to activate SOCE. This role for α-SNAP is direct and independent of its known activity in NSF dependent SNARE complex disassembly. Importantly, Stim1-Orai1 clustering still occurs in the absence of α-SNAP but its inability to support SOCE reveals that a previously unsuspected molecular re-arrangement within CRAC channel clusters is necessary for SOCE. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.00802.001.