Surface expression of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR) requires the assembly of multiple subunits in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Little is known, however, about the mechanism by which assembled receptor pentamers are transported to the cell membrane while unassembled subunits are retained in the ER. Here we report that a motif conserved in the transmembrane domain of AChR subunits is critically involved in this process. In COS cells, mutation within this signal allowed surface expression of unassembled subunits. Conversely, insertion of the sequence to unrelated proteins that are normally transported to the surface resulted in ER retention. The signal is buried in AChR pentamers, but is exposed on unassembled subunits in the ER, where it promotes protein degradation. We therefore conclude that this signal ensures surface trafficking of only functional AChRs.