This article develops a research framework for the analysis of the politics of migration policy instruments. Policy instruments are seen as living instruments; they evolve and develop similar to moving targets. A scholar interested in this field of research may focus either on the establishment of a given instrument or on its use. The question of an instrument’s design relates to the policy transfer literature focusing on how certain policies move from one setting to another. In the context of a policy transfer, actors from the other – ‘receiving’ – institutional setting negotiate and, potentially, contest or reinterpret a policy instrument. The evolution of policy instruments once adopted in a specific institutional context is a second area of interest. The original goals can be diluted throughout the implementation process notably due to tensions between intergovernmental and supranational actors, or sticky institutionalization, which is characterized by path-dependencies. Often the choice of new instruments derives from an inefficiency or loss of credibility of past instruments. This editorial therefore seeks to make a twofold contribution: first it investigates the added-value of a policy instrument approach to the study of migration; second it furthers research on the external dimension of EU migration policy.