In the present paper, we shall give necessary and sufficient conditions for the strong and weak boundedness of the Riesz potential operator Iα on Orlicz spaces. Cianchi (J. Lond. Math. Soc. 60(1):247-286, 2011) found necessary and sufficient conditions on general Young functions Φ and Ψ ensuring that this operator is of weak or strong type from LΦ into LΨ. Our characterizations for the boundedness of the above-mentioned operator are different from the ones in (Cianchi in J. Lond. Math. Soc. 60(1):247-286, 2011). As an application of these results, we consider the boundedness of the commutators of Riesz potential operator [ b, Iα] on Orlicz spaces when b belongs to the BMO and Lipschitz spaces, respectively. © 2017, The Author(s).