Inactivation of Kv3 (Kv1.3) delayed rectifier potassium channels was studied in the Xenopus oocyte expression system. These channels inactivate slowly during a long depolarizing pulse. In addition, inactivation accumulates in response to a series of short depolarizing pulses (cumulative inactivation), although no significant inactivation occurs within each short pulse. The extent of cumulative inactivation does not depend on the voltage during the depolarizing pulse, but it does vary in a biphasic manner as a function of the interpulse duration. Furthermore, the rate of cumulative inactivation is influenced by changing the rate of deactivation. These data are consistent with a model in which Kv3 channel inactivation is a state-dependent and voltage-independent process. Macroscopic and single channel experiments indicate that inactivation can occur from a closed (silent) state before channel opening. That is, channels need not open to inactivate. The transition that leads to the inactivated state from the silent state is, in fact, severalfold faster then the observed inactivation of current during long depolarizing pulses. Long pulse-induced inactivation appears to be slow, because its rate is limited by the probability that channels are in the open state, rather than in the silent state from which they can inactivate. External potassium and external calcium ions alter the rates of cumulative and long pulse-induced inactivation, suggesting that antagonistic potassium and calcium binding steps are involved in the normal gating of the channel.