An investigation was carried out on the transition of an iron electrode from active to passive state in a sulphuric acid solution. It was found that the active-passive transition was an auto-catalytic process in which a pre-passive film grew on the electrode surface. The growing pre-passive film had a fractal edge whose dimension was affected by the applied passivating potential and the presence of chlorides in the solution. Applying a more positive passivating potential led to a faster active-passive transition and resulted in a more irregular pre-passive film. If chlorides were introduced into the sulphuric acid solution, the active-passive transition became more rapid and the pre-passive film more irregular. Apart from the influence on the growth of the pre-passive film, the presence of chlorides in the passivating solution was found to deteriorate the stability of the final passive film. All these phenomena can be understood if the passivating iron electrode is regarded as a dissipative system. To explain these results, a fractal pre-film model is proposed in this paper. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.