The opening of the North Atlantic region was one of the most important geodynamic events that shaped the present day passive margins of Europe, Greenland and North America. Although well-studied, much remains to be understood about the evolution of the North Atlantic, including the role of the Jan Mayen microplate complex. Geophysical data provide an image of the crustal structure of this microplate and enable a detailed reconstruction of the rifting and spreading history. However, the mechanisms that cause the separation of microplates between conjugate margins are still poorly understood. We assemble recent models of rifting and passive margin formation in the North Atlantic and discuss possible scenarios that may have led to the formation of the Jan Mayen microplate complex. This event was probably triggered by regional plate tectonic reorganizations rejuvenating inherited structures. The axis of rifting and continental break-up and the width of the Jan Mayen microplate complex were controlled by old Caledonian fossil subduction/suture zones. Its length is related to east–west-oriented deformation and fracture zones, possibly linked to rheological heterogeneities inherited from the pre-existing Precambrian terrane boundaries.