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The vast majority of cancer-related death is due to the metastatic spread of the primary tumour. Circulating tumour cells (CTC) are essential for establishing metastasis and their detection has long been considered as a possible tool to assess the aggressiveness of a given tumour and its potential of subsequent growth at distant organs. Conventional markers are not reliable in detecting occult metastasis and, for example, fail to identify ∼40% of cancer patients in need of more aggressive or better adjusted therapies. Recent studies in metastatic breast cancer have shown that CTC detection can be used as a marker for overall survival and assessment of the therapeutic response. The benefits of CTC detection in early breast cancer and other solid tumours need further validation. Moreover, optimal CTC detection techniques are the subject of controversy as several lack reproducibility, sensitivity and/or specificity. Recent technical advances allow CTC detection and characterization at the single-cell level in the blood or in the bone marrow. Their reproducibility propels the use of CTC in cancer staging and real-time monitoring of systemic anticancer therapies in several large clinical trials. CTC assays are being integrated in large clinical trials to establish their potential in the management of cancer patients and improve our understanding of metastasis biology. This review will focus on the techniques currently used, the technical advancements made, the limitations of CTC detection and future perspectives in this field.