Natural killer (NK) cells show enhanced functional competence when they express inhibitory receptors specific for inherited major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) molecules. Current models imply that NK cell education requires an interaction of inhibitory receptors with MHC-I expressed on other cells. However, the inhibitory Ly49A receptor can also bind MHC-I ligand on the NK cell itself (in cis). Here we describe a Ly49A variant, which can engage MHC-I expressed on other cells but not in cis. Even though this variant inhibited NK cell effector function, it failed to educate NK cells. The association with MHC-I in cis sequestered wild-type Ly49A, and this was found to relieve NK cells from a suppressive effect of unengaged Ly49A. These data explain how inhibitory MHC-I receptors can facilitate NK cell activation. They dissociate classical inhibitory from educating functions of Ly49A and suggest that cis interaction of Ly49A is necessary for NK cell education.