Abstract Acute ischaemic stroke represents the most common cause of new sudden neurological deficit, but other diseases mimicking stroke happen in about one-third of the cases. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the best technique to identify those ‘stroke mimics’. In this article, we propose a diagnostic approach of those stroke mimics on MRI according to an algorithm based on diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI), which can be abnormal or normal, followed by the results of other common additional MRI sequences, such as T2 with gradient recalled echo weighted imaging (T2-GRE) and fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR). Analysis of the signal intensity of the parenchyma, the intracranial arteries and, overall, of the veins, is crucial on T2-GRE, while anatomic distribution of the parenchymal lesions is essential on FLAIR. Among stroke mimics with abnormal DWI, T2-GRE demonstrates obvious abnormalities in case of intracerebral haemorrhage or cerebral amyloid angiopathy, but this sequence also allows to propose alternative diagnoses when DWI is negative, such as in migraine aura or headaches with associated neurological deficits and lymphocytosis (HaNDL), in which cortical venous prominence is observed at the acute phase on T2-GRE. FLAIR is also of major interest when DWI is positive by better showing evocative distribution of cerebral lesions in case of seizure (involving the hippocampus, pulvinar and cortex), hypoglycaemia (bilateral lesions in the posterior limb of the internal capsules, corona radiata, striata or splenium of the corpus callosum) or in posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES). Other real stroke mimics such as mitochondrial myopathy, encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, stroke-like episodes (MELAS), Susac’s syndrome, brain tumour, demyelinating diseases and herpes simplex encephalitis are also included in our detailed and practical algorithm. Key points • About 30% of sudden neurological deficits are due to non-ischaemic causes. • MRI is the best technique to identify stroke mimics. • Our practical illustrated algorithm based on DWI helps to recognise stroke mimics.