Biogeochemical cycles, contaminant transport and chemical weathering are regulated by the speed at which precipitation travels through landscapes and reaches streams. Streamflow is a mixture of young and old precipitation, but the global proportions of these young and old components are not known. Here we analyse seasonal cycles of oxygen isotope ratios in rain, snow and streamflow compiled from 254 watersheds around the world, and calculate the fraction of streamflow that is derived from precipitation that fell within the past two or three months. This young streamflow accounts for about a third of global river discharge, and comprises at least 5% of discharge in about 90% of the catchments we investigated. We conclude that, although typical catchments have mean transit times of years or even decades, they nonetheless can rapidly transmit substantial fractions of soluble contaminant inputs to streams. Young streamflow is less prevalent in steeper landscapes, which suggests they are characterized by deeper vertical infiltration. Because young streamflow is derived from less than 0.1% of global groundwater storage, we conclude that this thin veneer of aquifer storage will have a disproportionate influence on stream water quality.