The anadromous life cycle of Atlantic salmon Salmo salar involves long migrations to novel environments and challenging physiological transformations when moving between salt-free and salt-rich waters. In this article, (1) environmental factors affecting the migration behaviour and survival of smolts and post-smolts during the river, estuarine and early marine phases, (2) how behavioural patterns are linked to survival and (3) how anthropogenic factors affect migration and survival are synthesized and reviewed based on published literature. The timing of the smolt migration is important in determining marine survival. The timing varies among rivers, most likely as a consequence of local adaptations, to ensure sea entry during optimal periods. Smolts and post-smolts swim actively and fast during migration, but in areas with strong currents, their own movements may be overridden by current-induced transport. Progression rates during the early marine migration vary between 0·4 and 3·0 body lengths s−1 relative to the ground. Reported mortality is 0·3–7·0% (median 2·3) km−1 during downriver migration, 0·6–36% (median 6·0) km−1 in estuaries and 0·3–3·4% (median 1·4) km−1 in coastal areas. Estuaries and river mouths are the sites of the highest mortalities, with predation being a common cause. The mortality rates varied more among studies in estuaries than in rivers and marine areas, which probably reflects the huge variation among estuaries in their characteristics. Behaviour and survival during migration may also be affected by pollution, fish farming, sea lice Lepeophtheirus salmonis, hydropower development and other anthropogenic activities that may be directly lethal, delay migration or have indirect effects by inhibiting migration. Total mortality reported during early marine migration (up to 5–230 km from the river mouths) in the studies available to date varies between 8 and 71%. Hence, the early marine migration is a life stage with high mortalities, due to both natural and human influences. Factors affecting mortality during the smolt and post-smolt stages contribute to determine the abundance of spawner returns. With many S. salar populations in decline, increased mortality at these stages may considerably contribute to limit S. salar production, and the consequences of human-induced mortality at this stage may be severe. Development of management actions to increase survival and fitness at the smolt and post-smolt stages is crucial to re-establish or conserve wild populations.