Lipid nanoparticles have great potential for delivering nucleic-acid-based therapeutics, but low efficiency limits their broad clinical translation. Differences in transfection capacity between in vitro models used for nanoparticle pre-clinical testing are poorly understood. To address this, using a clinically relevant lipid nanoparticle (LNP) delivering mRNA, we highlight specific endosomal characteristics in in vitro tumor models that impact protein expression. A 30-cell line LNP-mRNA transfection screen identified three cell lines having low, medium, and high transfection that correlated with protein expression when they were analyzed in tumor models. Endocytic profiling of these cell lines identified major differences in endolysosomal morphology, localization, endocytic uptake, trafficking, recycling, and endolysosomal pH, identified using a novel pH probe. High-transfecting cells showed rapid LNP uptake and trafficking through an organized endocytic pathway to lysosomes or rapid exocytosis. Low-transfecting cells demonstrated slower endosomal LNP trafficking to lysosomes and defective endocytic organization and acidification. Our data establish that efficient LNP-mRNA transfection relies on an early and narrow endosomal escape window prior to lysosomal sequestration and/or exocytosis. Endocytic profiling should form an important pre-clinical evaluation step for nucleic acid delivery systems to inform model selection and guide delivery-system design for improved clinical translation.