The activation kinetics of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) channels in outside-out patches from cultured hippocampal neurons were analyzed to determine the number of glutamate and glycine binding sites per channel. Following rapid steps into high concentrations of glutamate, the activation time course was concentration-independent and limited by transitions between the shut, but fully liganded state and the open state. At lower concentrations, ligand binding was rate-limiting. The resulting sigmoidal activation time course was best fitted by a kinetic model with two glutamate binding sites. Glycine concentration jumps in the continuous presence of glutamate were also best fitted with a two-site model. Agonist and co-agonist binding were better described by an independent, rather than a sequential model. We suggest that the NMDA receptor is at least a tetramer containing four ligand binding subunits, assuming a single binding site per subunit.