The invariant chain (Ii) is a transmembrane protein that associates with the MHC class II molecules in the endoplasmic reticulum. Expression of Ii in MHC class II-negative CV1 cells showed that it acquired complex-type oligosaccharide side chains and was retained in endosomal compartments. To search for a sorting signal, we made progressive deletions from the cytoplasmic N-terminus of Ii. Deleting 11 amino acid residues resulted in a protein that was still sorted and retained in endosomal vesicles, whereas deletion of 15 or more amino acid residues resulted in a protein that became resident in the plasma membrane. Amino acids 12-15 are thus essential for intracellular transport to endosomal compartments. As Ii is intracellularly associated with the MHC class II molecules, it is proposed that Ii determines the intracellular transport route of these molecules.