The internalization and subsequent fate of the two populations of nerve growth factor (NGF) receptors on pheochromocytoma PC12 cells were explored either by identifying the relative amounts and sizes of the receptors, after incubation of cells with [125I]NGF, by cross-linking with a photoreactive heterobifunctional reagent or by following the topological distribution of the cross-linked receptors with time. The ratio of the slow, high-affinity to the fast, low-affinity NGF receptor decreased over a 5-h incubation with [125I]NGF in a process which did not involve proteolytic conversion of the slow to the fast receptor. During this period the cross-linked slow receptor moved from a trypsin-labile to a trypsin-stable site suggestive of internalization. In contrast, the cross-linked fast NGF receptor remained trypsin sensitive for at least 2 h of incubation, indicative of a constant cell surface localization. The internalized [125I]NGF in the cross-linked slow NGF receptor was not degraded, indicating that cross-linking, by preventing the acid pH-induced dissociation of the NGF-receptor complex in the endosomes, blocks normal sorting of [125I]NGF to the lysosomes. The cross-linked receptor was not recycled to the cell surface. If this reflects the properties of the unmodified receptor then another process, possibly receptor conversion, is required to replenish slow NGF receptors in the cell surface.