Kidneys from nondirected donors (NDDs) have historically been allocated directly to the deceased donor wait list (DDWL). Recently, however, NDDs have participated in kidney exchange (KE) procedures, including KE 'chains', which have received considerable media attention. This increasing application of KE chains with NDD participation has occurred with limited ethical analysis and without ethical guidelines. This article aims to provide a rigorous ethical evaluation of NDDs and chain KEs. NDDs and bridge donors (BDs) (i.e. living donors who link KE procedures within KE chains) raise several ethical concerns including coercion, privacy, confidentiality, exploitation and commercialization. In addition, although NDD participation in KE procedures may increase transplant numbers, it may also reduce NDD kidney allocation to the DDWL, and disadvantage vulnerable populations, particularly O blood group candidates. Open KE chains (also termed 'never-ending' chains) result in a permanent diversion of NDD kidneys from the DDWL. The concept of limited KE chains is discussed as an ethically preferable means for protecting NDDs and BDs from coercion and minimizing 'backing out', whereas 'honor systems' are rejected because they are coercive and override autonomy. Recent occurrences of BDs backing out argue for adoption of ethically based protective measures for NDD participation in KE.