Trafficking of NMDA receptors to the surface of neurons and to synapses is critical for proper brain function and activity-dependent plasticity. Recent evidence suggests that surface trafficking of other ionotropic glutamate receptors requires ligand binding for exit from the endoplasmic reticulum. Here, we show that glutamate binding to GluN2 is required for trafficking of NMDA receptors to the cell surface. We expressed a panel of GluN2B ligand binding mutants in heterologous cells with GluN1 or in rat cultured neurons and found that surface expression correlates with glutamate efficacy. Such a correlation was found even in the presence of dominant negative dynamin to inhibit endocytosis and surface expression correlated with Golgi localization, indicating differences in forward trafficking. Co-expression of wild type GluN2B did not enhance surface expression of the mutants, suggesting that glutamate must bind to both GluN2 subunits in a tetramer and that surface expression is limited by the least avid of the two glutamate binding sites. Surface trafficking of a constitutively closed cleft GluN2B was indistinguishable from that of wild type, suggesting that glutamate concentrations are typically not limiting for forward trafficking. YFP-GluN2B expressed in hippocampal neurons from GluN2B(-/-) mice rescued synaptic accumulation at similar levels to wild type. Under these conditions, surface synaptic accumulation of YFP-GluN2B mutants also correlated with apparent glutamate affinity. Altogether, these results indicate that glutamate controls forward trafficking of NMDA receptors to the cell surface and to synapses and raise the intriguing idea that NMDA receptors may be functional at intracellular sites.