The interleukin-3 (IL-3) receptor is a cell-surface heterodimer that links the haemopoietic, vascular and immune systems and is overexpressed in acute and chronic myeloid leukaemia progenitor cells. It belongs to the type I cytokine receptor family in which the α-subunits consist of two fibronectin III-like domains that bind cytokine, and a third, evolutionarily unrelated and topologically conserved, N-terminal domain (NTD) with unknown function. Here we show by crystallography that, while the NTD of IL3Rα is highly mobile in the presence of IL-3, it becomes surprisingly rigid in the presence of IL-3 K116W. Mutagenesis, biochemical and functional studies show that the NTD of IL3Rα regulates IL-3 binding and signalling and reveal an unexpected role in preventing spontaneous receptor dimerisation. Our work identifies a dual role for the NTD in this cytokine receptor family, protecting against inappropriate signalling and dynamically regulating cytokine receptor binding and function.