Background: Viruses are the most abundant and genetically diverse biological entities on earth, yet the repertoire of viral proteins remains poorly explored. As the number of sequenced virus genomes grows into the thousands, and the number of viral proteins into the hundreds of thousands, we report a systematic computational analysis of the point of first-contact between viruses and their hosts, namely viral transmembrane (TM) proteins. Results: The complement of aα-helical TM proteins in double-stranded DNA viruses infecting bacteria and archaea reveals large-scale trends that differ from those of their hosts. Viruses typically encode a substantially lower fraction of TM proteins than archaea or bacteria, with the notable exception of viruses with virions containing a lipid component such as a lipid envelope, internal lipid core, or inner membrane vesicle. Compared to bacteriophages, archaeal viruses are substantially enriched in membrane proteins. However, this feature is not always stable throughout the evolution of a viral lineage; for example, TM proteins are not part of the common heritage shared between Lipothrixviridae and Rudiviridae. In contrast to bacteria and archaea, viruses almost completely lack proteins with complicated membrane topologies composed of more than 4 TM segments, with the few detected exceptions being obvious cases of relatively recent horizontal transfer from the host. Conclusions: The dramatic differences between the membrane proteomes of cells and viruses stem from the fact that viruses do not depend on essential membranes for energy transformation, ion homeostasis, nutrient transport and signaling.