Overdose deaths from fentanyl have reached epidemic proportions in the USA and are increasing worldwide. Fentanyl is a potent opioid agonist that is less well reversed by naloxone than morphine. Due to fentanyl’s high lipophilicity and elongated structure we hypothesised that its unusual pharmacology may be explained by its interactions with the lipid membrane on route to binding to the µ-opioid receptor (MOPr). Through coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations, electrophysiological recordings and cell signalling assays, we determined how fentanyl and morphine access the orthosteric pocket of MOPr. Morphine accesses MOPr via the aqueous pathway; first binding to an extracellular vestibule, then diffusing into the orthosteric pocket. In contrast, fentanyl may take a novel route; first partitioning into the membrane, before accessing the orthosteric site by diffusing through a ligand-induced gap between the transmembrane helices. In electrophysiological recordings fentanyl-induced currents returned after washout, suggesting fentanyl deposits in the lipid membrane. However, mutation of residues forming the potential MOPr transmembrane access site did not alter fentanyl’s pharmacological profile in vitro. A high local concentration of fentanyl in the lipid membrane, possibly in combination with a novel lipophilic binding route, may explain the high potency and lower susceptibility of fentanyl to reversal by naloxone.