Multiple independent sequence variants of the hTERT locus have been associated with telomere length and cancer risks in genome-wide association studies. Here, we identified an intronic variable number tandem repeat, VNTR2-1, as an enhancer-like element, which activated hTERT transcription in a cell in a chromatin-dependent manner. VNTR2-1, consisting of 42-bp repeats with an array of enhancer boxes, cooperated with the proximal promoter in the regulation of hTERT transcription by basic helix-loop-helix transcription factors and maintained hTERT expression during embryonic stem-cell differentiation. Genomic deletion of VNTR2-1 in MelJuSo melanoma cells markedly reduced hTERT transcription, leading to telomere shortening, cellular senescence, and impairment of xenograft tumor growth. Interestingly, VNTR2-1 lengths varied widely in human populations; hTERT alleles with shorter VNTR2-1 were underrepresented in African American centenarians, indicating its role in human aging. Therefore, this polymorphic element is likely a missing link in the telomerase regulatory network and a molecular basis for genetic diversities of telomere homeostasis and age-related disease susceptibilities.