Single-cell analysis of gene expression is increasingly important for the analysis of complex tissues, including cancer, developing organs and adult stem cell niches. Here we present a detailed protocol for quantitative gene expression analysis in single cells, by the sequencing of mRNA 5' ends. In all, 96 cells are lysed, and their mRNA is converted to cDNA. By using a template-switching mechanism, a bar code and an upstream primer-binding sequence are introduced simultaneously with reverse transcription. All cDNA is pooled and then prepared for 5' end sequencing, including fragmentation, adapter ligation and PCR amplification. The chief advantage of this approach is the great reduction in cost and time, afforded by the early bar-coding strategy. Compared with previous methods, it is more suitable for large-scale quantitative analysis, as well as for the characterization of transcription start sites, but it is unsuitable for the detection of alternatively spliced transcripts. Sample preparation takes 3 d, and two sets of 96 cells can be prepared in parallel. Finally, the sequencing and data analysis can take an additional 4 d altogether.