During protein N-glycosylation in mammalian cells, free oligosaccharides (fOS) are generated from lipid-linked oligosaccharides by a pyrophosphatase activity and oligosaccharyltransferase and from misfolded glycoproteins by peptide:N-glycanase in both the ER and cytoplasm. Trafficking machinery comprising oligosaccharide-specific ER and lysosomal transporters, an endo-β-N-acetyl-glucosaminidase, and the cytosolic M2C1 mannosidase drives a flux of fOS from the ER to cytoplasm and from the cytoplasm into lysosomes where fOS are degraded. Transport of fOS out of the ER is normally efficient and if inhibited causes fOS to be secreted via the Golgi apparatus. By contrast, fOS clearance from the cytosol into lysosomes is less efficient resulting in low micromolar concentrations of fOS in the cytoplasm. Structural analysis of cytosolic fOS reveals oligosaccharide families whose relative abundance highlights the importance of different ER-associated degradation (ERAD) pathways for misfolded glycoproteins and suggests that in liver cells substantial amounts of glycoproteins destined for ERAD may transit early compartments of the Golgi apparatus. Glycoprotein quality control and ERAD are controlled by N-glycan/lectin interactions and the fOS trafficking pathway would seem to ensure that fOS do not interfere with these processes which occur in both the ER and cytoplasm. Although Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains harbouring mutations in genes of the yeast fOS metabolic pathway do not display obvious phenotypes, mammalian fOS are quantitatively more important and the processes leading to their regulation are more complex, raising the possibility that distinct phenotypes will be seen in mammalian cells or animals in which fOS metabolism is modified.