Rationale Fast and sensitive detection of aromatic hydrocarbons (AHs) in water is of high importance because of their significant impact on human health and the environment. For this, resonance-enhanced multiphoton ionization (REMPI) coupled to trap-and-release membrane-introduction mass spectrometry (T&R-MIMS) offers the possibility of sensitive on-line water analysis with a time resolution of minutes. Methods REMPI is a versatile tool for sensitive gas-phase analysis, in which AHs are selectively ionized in complex gas mixtures by the subsequent absorption of at least two photons. In T&R-MIMS, selective extraction and enrichment of analytes from water can be achieved using semipermeable membranes. By the subsequent stimulated desorption of enriched compounds, mass spectrometric detection is enabled. Results We present an external T&R inlet for hollow-fiber membranes coupled to REMPI time-of-flight mass spectrometry, which enables direct and sensitive detection of semi-volatile AHs in water. In laboratory experiments, spiked water samples were analyzed. For the investigated compounds, limits of detection (LODs) in the range 1-47 ng/L were determined. The LODs are approximately one order of magnitude lower than in a previously reported continuous membrane-introduction approach using a planar membrane. Further improvement of LOD may be realized by extending the trapping time and by increasing the release temperature. Furthermore, the system was applied to investigate different fuels suspended in water and real water samples. The obtained data are in good agreement with findings of a former study. Conclusions In the framework of the present study, we demonstrate the high potential of the combination of REMPI and T&R-MIMS in the form of a newly developed external hollow-fiber membrane inlet. With the developed system, semi-volatile AHs can be directly detected down to ng/L levels on a minute time scale. The approach thus may pave the way to future ship application in marine sciences, natural resources exploration or pollutant and hazard detection.