CD4+ T cells are a major component of the inflammatory infiltrate in rheumatoid synovitis. Within synovial lesions, clonal CD4+ T cell populations are detectable, supporting the notion of an antigen specific recognition even in the joint. In general, the clonal size of individual T cell clones is small and does not lead to a marked distortion of the synovial T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire. Comparison of TCR sequences derived from different patients has not provided evidence for common sequences. Either multiple antigens are recognized or the TCR repertoire is sufficiently plastic with a multitude of different TCR structures responding to the same antigen(s). However, within one individual, the repertoire of clonal T cell populations is restricted. Identical T cell clones can be identified in different joints and at different timepoints of the disease, emphasizing that the spectrum of antigens recognized is conserved over time and that the T cell response pattern is not subject to evolution. Characterization of antigens involved in the latter stages of the disease may thus provide critical information on disease-initiating events. Recent data have led to the new concept that the role of T cells in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not limited to synovial inflammation. Evidence has been provided that the premorbid TCR repertoires of RA patients and normal controls can be distinguished. The T cell repertoire in RA patients is prone to recognize certain microbial products and autoantigens. The selection of this response pattern can only partially be attributed to the disease associated HLA-DRB1 alleles. Additional factors common in RA patients but not in HLA-DR matched control individuals seem to be important in shaping the TCR repertoire. Furthermore, the repertoire of mature T cells in RA patients is characterized by oligoclonality which involves T cells in the peripheral blood compartment. Possibly, these clonal T cell populations react to widespread autoantigens, raising the possibility that RA patients have a defect in controlling peripheral tolerance and an anomaly of lymphoproliferation. In contrast to joint residing CD4+ T cells, expanded clonotypes isolated from the blood of different patients have been described to share TCR beta chain structures. How these characteristic features of the global TCR repertoire in RA patients translate into mechanisms of disease remains to be elucidated.