Rho is a general transcription termination factor in bacteria, but many aspects of its mechanism of action are unclear. Diverse models have been proposed for the initial interaction between the RNA polymerase (RNAP) and Rho (catch-up and stand-by pre-terminational models); for the terminational release of the RNA transcript (RNA shearing, RNAP hyper-translocation or displacing, and allosteric models); and for the post-terminational outcome (whether the RNAP dissociates or remains bound to the DNA). Here, we use single-molecule fluorescence assays to study those three steps in transcription termination mediated by E. coli Rho. We find that different mechanisms previously proposed for each step co-exist, but apparently occur on various timescales and tend to lead to specific outcomes. Our results indicate that three kinetically distinct routes take place: (1) the catch-up mode leads first to RNA shearing for RNAP recycling on DNA, and (2) later to RNAP displacement for decomposition of the transcriptional complex; (3) the last termination usually follows the stand-by mode with displacing for decomposing. This three-route model would help reconcile current controversies on the mechanisms. Rho is a general transcription termination factor in bacteria. Here, Song et al. use single-molecule fluorescence assays to provide evidence that Rho-mediated transcription termination can occur via three kinetically different routes.