Removal of the membrane-tethering signal peptides that target secretory proteins to the endoplasmic reticulum is a prerequisite for proper folding. While generally thought to be removed co-translationally, we report two additional post-targeting functions for the HIV-1 gp120 signal peptide, which remains attached until gp120 folding triggers its removal. First, the signal peptide improves folding fidelity by enhancing conformational plasticity of gp120 by driving disulfide isomerization through a redox-active cysteine. Simultaneously, the signal peptide delays folding by tethering the N terminus to the membrane, until assembly with the C terminus. Second, its carefully timed cleavage represents intramolecular quality control and ensures release of (only) natively folded gp120. Postponed cleavage and the redox-active cysteine are both highly conserved and important for viral fitness. Considering the ∼15% proteins with signal peptides and the frequency of N-to-C contacts in protein structures, these regulatory roles of signal peptides are bound to be more common in secretory-protein biogenesis.