It is well known that malignant cells circulate in the bloodstream of patients with solid tumors. However, the biological significance of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and the clinical relevance of their detection are still debated. Besides technical issues regarding CTC-detection methods, discontinuous shedding of CTCs from established cancer deposits, genomic instability and metastatic inefficiency might underlie the conflicting results currently available. Nevertheless, technological advances and recent clinical findings are prompting researchers to dissect CTC biology further. Here, we review these recent findings, and discuss the prospects for the identification and molecular characterization of the CTC subset that is responsible for metastasis development. This would provide a formidable tool for prognosis evaluation, anticancer-drug development and, ultimately, cancer-therapy personalization.