A major unanswered question is how a TCR discriminates between foreign and self-peptides presented on the APC surface. Here, we used in situ fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) to measure the distances of single TCR–pMHC bonds and the conformations of individual TCR–CD3ζ receptors at the membranes of live primary T cells. We found that a TCR discriminates between closely related peptides by forming single TCR–pMHC bonds with different conformations, and the most potent pMHC forms the shortest bond. The bond conformation is an intrinsic property that is independent of the binding affinity and kinetics, TCR microcluster formation, and CD4 binding. The bond conformation dictates the degree of CD3ζ dissociation from the inner leaflet of the plasma membrane via a positive calcium signaling feedback loop to precisely control the accessibility of CD3ζ ITAMs for phosphorylation. Our data revealed the mechanism by which a TCR deciphers the structural differences among peptides via the TCR–pMHC bond conformation. © 2019, CSI and USTC.