The assembly of HLA class I antigens, and the contribution of the single N-linked glycan to this process were examined. We observed a requirement for N-linked glycosylation in the proper assembly and surface expression of HLA-B locus products in particular, although considerable variation was seen within the allelic series of the HLA-A and B loci. We conclude that the single N-linked glycan can contribute in a major way to that conformation of the heavy (H) chain which is competent to associate with the light chain beta 2-microglobulin, and that the presence, rather than the type, of carbohydrate chain is important in this respect. The association of human class I H chains with beta 2-microglobulin shows biphasic kinetics, where an initially rapid phase is followed by a prolonged period during which no further association can be measured. It appears that HLA-C H chains are initially synthesized in amounts similar to HLA-A and B H chains, but associate inefficiently with beta 2-microglobulin, resulting in low expression of HLA-C at the cell surface. The individual stages of assembly and maturation of class I antigens including the transfer from Golgi to cell surface were found to display characteristic allelic variation.