Clathrin-mediated endocytosis oversees the constitutive packaging of selected membrane cargoes into transport vesicles that fuse with early endosomes. The process is responsive to activation of signalling receptors and ion channels, promptly clearing post-translationally tagged forms of cargo off the plasma membrane. To accommodate the diverse array of transmembrane proteins that are variably gathered into forming vesicles, a dedicated sorting machinery cooperates to ensure that non-competitive uptake from the cell surface occurs within minutes. Recent structural and functional data reveal remarkable plasticity in how disparate sorting signals are recognized by cargo-selective clathrin adaptors, such as AP-2. Cargo loading also seems to govern whether coats ultimately bud or dismantle abortively at the cell surface.