This paper is about shifting contexts of east-west European migration, from the points of view of both sending households and individual migrants. I draw on my own ethnographic data from Poland, spanning the past 30 years, and on other material. The lives many migrants imagine before they leave their homes and the ones in which they find themselves on arrival often starkly diverge. I consider the conundrum of time as it plays out in complicated life courses that take people on journeys across borders and often continents, putting their present time, and the emotional, economic, and social relationships which comprise it, on hold in search of a promised ‘better’ time in the future. I argue that in many cases migrants’ journeys must be considered as outcomes of complex negotiations with household members and other kin, friends and peers, and as risks taken at least partly consciously. What is being gambled is the challenge of present hardship against the imagination of a better future. Drawing on scholars such as Massey, Harvey, Guyer and Jackson, I argue that the spatial fragmentation of migrant journeys is paralleled by temporal fragmentation, where an imagined future is weighed against an existing but sometimes non-viable (economically, politically, socially) present.