The translation initiation efficiency of a given mRNA is determined by its translation initiation region (TIR). mRNAs are selected into 30S initiation complexes according to the strengths of the secondary structure of the TIR, the pairing of the Shine-Dalgarno sequence with 16S rRNA, and the interaction between initiator tRNA and the start codon. Here, we show that the conversion of the 30S initiation complex into the translating 70S ribosome constitutes another important mRNA control checkpoint. Kinetic analysis reveals that 50S subunit joining and dissociation of IF3 are strongly influenced by the nature of the codon used for initiation and the structural elements of the TIR. Coupling between the TIR and the rate of 70S initiation complex formation involves IF3- and IF1-induced rearrangements of the 30S subunit, providing a mechanism by which the ribosome senses the TIR and determines the efficiency of translational initiation of a particular mRNA.