After viral infection, activated T cells are present in multiple tissues regardless of the infection route. How these cells acquire pleiotropic homing ability is unclear. By using a cutaneous vaccinia virus infection model, we demonstrate that regulation of T cell trafficking is multiphasic. Upon completion of three cell divisions, CD8+ T cells upregulated specific skin-homing molecules within draining lymph nodes (LN). By 60 hr after infection, some activated T cells reached the infected tissue, while others entered distant antigen-free LN. These latter cells continued to divide and acquire additional tissue-homing molecules in this new setting, independent of antigen presentation. After viral clearance, the initial skin-homing imprint became the predominant homing phenotype on memory cells and provided superior protection against secondary cutaneous challenge. These observations demonstrate a mechanism by which T cells provide both immediate tissue-specific immune control at the pathogen entry site and a more flexible systemic protection against pathogen dissemination.