Endogenous antigen presentation by major histocompatibility complex class II molecules can be understood if class II alpha beta heterodimers bind peptide in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) before they associate with the invariant chain (Ii). We have studied the assembly of class II molecules from the free alpha, beta and Ii subunits to examine the existence of a class II alpha beta heterodimer as an intermediate in the assembly of class II alpha beta Ii heterotrimers in the ER. In human kidney cell transfectants, the free class II alpha and beta subunits and the class II alpha beta heterodimer are retained in the ER by association with the chaperonin immunoglobulin binding protein (BiP) and Ii is retained through its cytoplasmic tail. Co-expression of Ii results in release of BiP from class II alpha beta complexes and exit of class II alpha beta Ii heterotrimers from the ER. We show that the cytoplasmic tail and the transmembrane region of the class II alpha and beta chain is not essential for proper assembly of the class II alpha beta heterodimer. We followed assembly of the class II alpha beta Ii heterotrimers in wild-type cells. The class II subunits assemble post-translationally. No class II alpha beta heterodimers could be isolated as intermediates in the formation of class II alpha beta Ii heterotrimers, suggesting that peptide binding by class II molecules in the ER is necessarily inefficient.