We directly resolved discrete exocytic fusion events mediating insertion of AMPA-type glutamate receptors (AMPARs) to the somatodendritic surface of rat hippocampal pyramidal neurons, in slice and dissociated cultures, using protein tagging with a pH-sensitive GFP (green fluorescent protein) variant and rapid (10 frames/s) fluorescence microscopy. AMPAR-containing exocytic events occurred under basal culture conditions in both the cell body and dendrites; potentiating chemical stimuli produced an NMDA receptor-dependent increase in the frequency of individual exocytic events. The number of AMPARs inserted per exocytic event, estimated using single-molecule analysis, was quite uniform but individual events differed significantly in kinetic properties affecting the subsequent surface distribution of receptors. "Transient" events, from which AMPARs dispersed laterally immediately after surface insertion, generated a pronounced but short-lived (dissipating within approximately 1 s) increase in surface AMPAR fluorescence extending locally (2-5 microm) from the site of exocytosis. "Persistent" events, from which inserted AMPARs dispersed slowly (typically over 5-10 s), affected local surface receptor concentration to a much smaller degree. Both modes of exocytic insertion occurred throughout the dendritic shaft, but remarkably, neither mode of insertion was observed directly into synaptic spines. AMPARs entered spines preferentially from transient events occurring in the adjoining dendritic shaft, driven apparently by mass action and short-range lateral diffusion, and locally delivered AMPARs remained mostly in the mobile fraction. These results suggest a highly dynamic mechanism for both constitutive and activity-dependent surface delivery of AMPARs, mediated by kinetically distinct exocytic modes that differ in propensity to drive lateral entry of receptors to nearby synapses.