© 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved. Many cellular functions rely on DNA-binding proteins finding and associating to specific sites in the genome. Yet the mechanisms underlying the target search remain poorly understood, especially in the case of the highly organized mammalian cell nucleus. Using as a model Tet repressors (TetRs) searching for a multi-array locus, we quantitatively analyse the search process in human cells with single-molecule tracking and single-cell protein-DNA association measurements. We find that TetRs explore the nucleus and reach their target by 3D diffusion interspersed with transient interactions with non-cognate sites, consistent with the facilitated diffusion model. Remarkably, nonspecific binding times are broadly distributed, underlining a lack of clear delimitation between specific and nonspecific interactions. However, the search kinetics is not determined by diffusive transport but by the low association rate to nonspecific sites. Altogether, our results provide a comprehensive view of the recruitment dynamics of proteins at specific loci in mammalian cells.