Cytosolic peptides are translocated to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) lumen by the transporters associated with antigen processing (TAP), where major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules associate with peptides of about 8-10 amino acids. TAP translocates peptides of 9-13 amino acids with the highest relative affinity but also longer and shorter peptides. The fate of the peptides that fail to associate with class I molecules because of incorrect sequence or length, is unknown. Here we show that the bulk of the translocated peptides are rapidly released from the ER by a mechanism that requires adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and that could not be inhibited by GTP gamma S. TAP does not appear to be involved in this process. Whereas free peptides are slowly trimmed in the ER lumen, they are rapidly degraded in the cytosol. A fraction of the peptides released from the ER escapes complete degradation in the cytosol and recycles back to the ER in a TAP-dependent fashion. These results suggest that peptides that are too long for binding to class I molecules in the ER can be trimmed further in the ER lumen or, alternatively, can be transported back to the cytosol where a fraction of the peptides is trimmed to a size suitable for association to MHC class I molecules and recycles back to the ER.