Key points At rat calyx of Held terminals, ATP was required not only for slow endocytosis, but also for rapid phase of compensatory endocytosis. An ATP‐independent form of endocytosis was recruited to accelerate membrane retrieval at increased activity and temperature. ATP‐independent endocytosis primarily involved retrieval of pre‐existing membrane, which depended on Ca2+ and the activity of neutral sphingomyelinase but not clathrin‐coated pit maturation. ATP‐independent endocytosis represents a non‐canonical mechanism that can efficiently retrieve membrane at physiological conditions without competing for the limited ATP at elevated neuronal activity. Abstract Neurotransmission relies on membrane endocytosis to maintain vesicle supply and membrane stability. Endocytosis has been generally recognized as a major ATP‐dependent function, which efficiently retrieves more membrane at elevated neuronal activity when ATP consumption within nerve terminals increases drastically. This paradox raises the interesting question of whether increased activity recruits ATP‐independent mechanism(s) to accelerate endocytosis at the same time as preserving ATP availability for other tasks. To address this issue, we studied ATP requirement in three typical forms of endocytosis at rat calyx of Held terminals by whole‐cell membrane capacitance measurements. At room temperature, blocking ATP hydrolysis effectively abolished slow endocytosis and rapid endocytosis but only partially inhibited excess endocytosis following intense stimulation. The ATP‐independent endocytosis occurred at calyces from postnatal days 8–15, suggesting its existence before and after hearing onset. This endocytosis was not affected by a reduction of exocytosis using the light chain of botulinum toxin C, nor by block of clathrin‐coat maturation. It was abolished by EGTA, which preferentially blocked endocytosis of retrievable membrane pre‐existing at the surface, and was impaired by oxidation of cholesterol and inhibition of neutral sphingomyelinase. ATP‐independent endocytosis became more significant at 34–35°C, and recovered membrane by an amount that, on average, was close to exocytosis. The results of the present study suggest that activity and temperature recruit ATP‐independent endocytosis of pre‐existing membrane (in addition to ATP‐dependent endocytosis) to efficiently retrieve membrane at nerve terminals. This less understood endocytosis represents a non‐canonical mechanism regulated by lipids such as cholesterol and sphingomyelinase.