Nasal epithelial tissue of the upper respiratory tract is the first site of contact by inhaled pathogens such as influenza virus. We show that this region is key to limiting viral spread to the lower respiratory tract and associated disease pathology. Immunization of the upper respiratory tract leads to the formation of local tissue-resident memory CD8+ T cells (Trm cells). Unlike Trm cells in the lung, these cells develop independently of local cognate antigen recognition and transforming growth factor–β signaling and persist with minimal decay, representing a long-term protective population. Repertoire characterization revealed unexpected differences between lung and nasal tissue Trm cells, the composition of which was shaped by the developmental need for lung, but not nasal, Trm cells to recognize antigen within their local tissue. We show that influenza-specific Trm cells in the nasal epithelia can block the transmission of influenza virus from the upper respiratory tract to the lung and, in doing so, prevent the development of severe pulmonary disease. Our findings reveal the protective capacity and longevity of upper respiratory tract Trm cells and highlight the potential of targeting these cells to augment protective responses induced to respiratory viral vaccines.