Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) are thought to detect viral infections by monitoring the surface of all cells for the presence of viral peptides bound to major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. In most cells, peptides presented by MHC class I molecules are derived exclusively from proteins synthesized by the antigen-bearing cells. Macrophages and dendritic cells also have an alternative MHC class I pathway that can present peptides derived from extracellular antigens; however, the physiological role of this process is unclear. Here we show that virally infected non-haematopoietic cells are unable to stimulate primary CTL-mediated immunity directly. Instead, bone-marrow-derived cells are required as antigen-presenting cells (APCs) to initiate anti-viral CTL responses. In these APCs, the alternative (exogenous) MHC class I pathway is the obligatory mechanism for the initiation of CTL responses to viruses that infect only non-haematopoietic cells.