The formation and closure of aqueous pores in lipid bilayers is a key step in various biophysical processes. Large pores are well described by classical nucleation theory, but the free-energy landscape of small, biologically relevant pores has remained largely unexplored. The existence of small and metastable “prepores” was hypothesized decades ago from electroporation experiments, but resolving metastable prepores from theoretical models remained challenging. Using two complementary methods—atomistic simulations and self-consistent field theory of a minimal lipid model—we determine the parameters for which metastable prepores occur in lipid membranes. Both methods consistently suggest that pore metastability depends on the relative volume ratio between the lipid head group and lipid tails: lipids with a larger head-group volume fraction (or shorter saturated tails) form metastable prepores, whereas lipids with a smaller head-group volume fraction (or longer unsaturated tails) form unstable prepores.