Based on measurements of the 18O isotope composition of 247 samples collected over a 3-year period we have assessed the oxygen isotope composition of water masses in the North Sea. This is the first d18O data set that covers the entire North Sea basin. The waters lie on a mixing line: d18O (‰VSMOW) = -9.300 + 0.274(S) with North Atlantic sub-polar mode water (SPMW) and surface waters, and Baltic Sea water representing the saline and freshwater end members respectively. Patterns exhibited in surface and bottom water d18O distributions are representative of the general circulation of the North Sea. Oxygen-18 enriched waters from the North Atlantic enter the North Sea between Scotland and Norway and to a lesser extent through the English Channel. In contrast, oxygen-18 depleted waters mainly inflow from the Baltic Sea, the rivers Rhine and Elbe, and to a lesser degree, the Norwegian Fjords and other river sources. Locally the d18O–salinity relationship will be controlled by the isotopic composition of the freshwater inputs. However, the range of local freshwater compositions around the North Sea basin is too narrow to characterise the relative contributions of individual sources to the overall seawater composition. This dataset provides important information for a number of related disciplines including biogeochemical research and oceanographic studies.