Contributors to this special issue realised that reflecting on experiences of getting access (or not) can tell us something important about the institutions we aimed to study and, more broadly, about the migration control field. Put differently, attempts at approaching and approximating state actors within a charged field exposed us to some of its most fundamental organising principles. We have, therefore, set ourselves the task in this issue of SA/AS to ask and answer the following question: What do attempts at studying migration control tell us about the state? Our exercise is, thus, squarely set as an attempt to intervene in a burgeoning debate around the ways in which the ‘anthropology of the state’ can develop. Both the issues at stake – the management of undesired others – and the field in which we conduct our studies, migration control administrations, are indeed changing to become acutely central to the governing of our societies. By gathering findings from different research projects across Europe, this special issue offers a comparative perspective on some of the most salient features of the migration control field from the eyes of ethnographic researchers in search of access.