In the post-World War II Val Melaina neighbourhood of Rome, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is desperate for work to support his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and his small baby. He is offered a position posting advertising bills, but tells Maria that he cannot accept because the job requires a bicycle. Maria resolutely strips the bed of her dowry bedsheets—prized possessions for a poor family—and takes them to the pawn shop, where they bring enough to redeem Antonio's pawned bicycle. (A memorable shot shows the sheets being added to a mountain of bedding pawned by other families.) They cycle home—Maria on the crossbar—rejoicing in their good fortune. Along the way, Maria insists that she has to visit someone. Antonio discovers that it is a seer who had prophesied that Antonio would find work; Maria gives the seer money in appreciation of her prophecy. Antonio teases her for such foolishness.
On his first day of work Antonio is atop a ladder when a young man (Vittorio Antonucci) snatches the bicycle. Antonio gives chase but is thrown off the trail by the thief's confederates. The police warn that there is little they can do. Advised that stolen goods often surface at the Piazza Vittorio market, Antonio goes there with several friends and Bruno. Finding a bike that might be Antonio's they summon an officer, but the serial numbers do not match.
At the Porta Portese market Antonio and Bruno spot the thief with an old man. The thief eludes them, and the old man feigns ignorance. They follow him into a church where he too slips away from them. Bruno is dismayed, which angers Antonio; Antonio slaps Bruno, who breaks into tears.
Bruno waits by a bridge while Antonio goes in search of the old man. Suddenly there are cries that a boy is drowning. Rushing toward the commotion Antonio is relieved to see that the drowning boy is not Bruno. Antonio treats Bruno to lunch in a restaurant, where they briefly forget their troubles, but on seeing a rich family enjoying a fine meal, Antonio is again seized by his calamity and tortures himself by reckoning his lost earnings.
Desperate, Antonio consults the seer, who tells him, "You'll find the bike today, or not at all." Leaving the seer's house he and Bruno encounter the thief; Antonio pursues him into what turns out to be a brothel, whose denizens quickly eject them. In the street hostile neighbors gather as Antonio accuses the thief, who conveniently falls into a fit for which the crowd blames Antonio. During this commotion Bruno fetches a policeman, who searches the thief's apartment without result. The policeman tells Antonio the case is weak—Antonio has no witnesses and the neighbors are certain to provide the thief with an alibi. Antonio and Bruno leave in despair amid jeers and threats from the crowd.
On their way home, they near Stadio Nazionale PNF football stadium. Inside a game is underway; outside, rows of bicycles await their owners. Antonio sees an unattended bike near a doorway. He paces distractedly, then sits with Bruno on the curb, his hat in his hands. A stream of bicycles rushes past—the world seems full of other people's bicycles. He resumes pacing, anguished and agitated, then instructs Bruno to take the streetcar to a stop nearby and wait.
Antonio circles the unattended bicycle, summons his courage, and jumps on it. Instantly the hue and cry is raised and Bruno, who has missed the streetcar, is stunned to see his father surrounded, pulled from the bike, slapped and insulted—his hat is knocked off. As Antonio is being muscled toward the police station, the bicycle's owner notices Bruno, who has picked up Antonio's hat; in a moment of compassion he tells the others to release Antonio.
Antonio and Bruno walk off slowly amid a buffeting crowd. Bruno hands his father the hat, crying as Antonio stares dazedly ahead, unreacting even as a truck brushes his shoulder. They look briefly at each other. Antonio fights back tears; Bruno takes his hand. The camera watches from behind as they disappear into the crowd.
The bike redeemed, the family saved
First day on the job
In search of the stolen bike
The thief's neighbors threaten Antonio
All seems lost