Exocytosis of neurotransmitter from a synaptic vesicle is followed by efficient retrieval of its constituent membrane and proteins. Real-time measurements indicate that fast and slow modes of retrieval operate in parallel at a number of presynaptic terminals. Two mechanisms can be distinguished by electron microscopy: clathrin-mediated retrieval of small vesicles and bulk retrieval of large cisternae. Methods that investigate the behaviour of individual vesicles have recently demonstrated a third route of retrieval: the rapid reversal of a pore-like connection between the vesicle and surface ('kiss-and-run'). Key aims for the future are to identify the molecules underlying different mechanisms of endocytosis at the synapse and the signals that select between them.