TCR downmodulation following ligation by MHC:peptide complexes is considered to be a pivotal event in T cell activation. Here, we analyzed the dynamics of TCR:CD3 cell surface expression on resting and antigen-activated T cells. We show that the TCR:CD3 complex is very stable and is rapidly internalized and recycled in resting T cells. Surprisingly, the internalization rate is not increased following TCR ligation by MHC:peptide complexes, despite significant TCR downmodulation, suggesting that constitutive internalization rather than ligation-induced downmodulation serves as the force that drives serial ligation. Furthermore, TCR downmodulation is mediated by the intracellular retention of ligated complexes and degradation by lysosomes and proteasomes. Thus, our data demonstrate that ligation induces TCR downmodulation by preventing recycling rather than inducing internalization.