The dopamine (DA) uptake system in mammalian nerve terminals was studied by measuring the unidirectional influx of tritiated DA into synaptosomes prepared from rat caudate nucleus. Two distinct time-dependent components of DA uptake were observed. The principal component was saturable with respect to DA concentration, required both external Na and Cl, and was competitively blocked by micromolar concentrations of the psychotropic agents cocaine, benztropine, nomifensine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine. This principal component of uptake has the properties expected for a carrier-mediated transport system. The second component, which accounted for about 10-30% of the DA uptake at 2 microM DA, was not saturable, and was independent of external Na, Cl, and blockers of the carrier-mediated system. The saturable, Na-dependent component had an apparent Km(DA) of about 0.5 microM. The dependence of DA uptake on external Na was sigmoid [Hill coefficient = 2; Ka(Na) = 45 mM] whereas the dependence on Cl was best described by a rectangular hyperbola [Ka(Cl) = 15 mM]. Depolarizing conditions (elevated external K) reduced the rate of DA influx. The data are consistent with a carrier-mediated DA transport mechanism in which each DA molecule entering the nerve terminal via the carrier is accompanied by two or more Na ions and one Cl ion in a rheogenic process carrying one or more net positive charges into the cell. Net, concentrative accumulation of DA inside nerve terminals may be accomplished by utilizing the Na electrochemical gradient to drive DA against its electrochemical gradient via this carrier system.