Freshwater discharge from the continents is a key component of Earth’s water cycle that sustains human life and ecosystem health. Surprisingly, owing to a number of socioeconomic and political obstacles, a comprehensive global river discharge observing system does not yet exist. Here we use 13 years (1994–2006) of satellite precipitation, evaporation, and sea level data in an ocean mass balance to estimate freshwater discharge into the global ocean. Results indicate that global freshwater discharge averaged 36,055 km3/y for the study period while exhibiting significant interannual variability driven primarily by El Niño Southern Oscillation cycles. The method described here can ultimately be used to estimate long-term global discharge trends as the records of sea level rise and ocean temperature lengthen. For the relatively short 13-year period studied here, global discharge increased by 540 km3/y2, which was largely attributed to an increase of global-ocean evaporation (768 km3/y2). Sustained growth of these flux rates into long-term trends would provide evidence for increasing intensity of the hydrologic cycle.