Hi-GAL, the Herschel infrared Galactic Plane Survey, is an Open Time Key Project of the Herschel Space Observatory. It will make an unbiased photometric survey of the inner Galactic plane by mapping a 2° wide strip in the longitude range ∣l∣ < 60° in five wavebands between 70 μm and 500 μm. The aim of Hi-GAL is to detect the earliest phases of the formation of molecular clouds and high-mass stars and to use the optimum combination of Herschel wavelength coverage, sensitivity, mapping strategy, and speed to deliver a homogeneous census of star-forming regions and cold structures in the interstellar medium. The resulting representative samples will yield the variation of source temperature, luminosity, mass and age in a wide range of Galactic environments at all scales from massive YSOs in protoclusters to entire spiral arms, providing an evolutionary sequence for the formation of intermediate and high-mass stars. This information is essential to the formulation of a predictive global model of the role of environment and feedback in regulating the star-formation process. Such a model is vital to understanding star formation on galactic scales and in the early universe. Hi-GAL will also provide a science legacy for decades to come with incalculable potential for systematic and serendipitous science in a wide range of astronomical fields, enabling the optimum use of future major facilities such as JWST and ALMA.