Purpose To describe the intake of water and all other fluids and to evaluate the proportion of adults exceeding the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on energy intake from free sugar, solely from fluids. Methods A total of 16,276 adults (46 % men, mean age 39.8 years) were recruited in 13 countries from 3 continents. A 24-h fluid-specific record over 7 days was used for fluid assessment. Results In Spain, France, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and China, fluid intake was characterised by a high contribution of water (47–78 %) to total fluid intake (TFI), with a mean water intake between 0.76 and 1.78 L/day, and a mean energy intake from fluids from 182 to 428 kcal/day. Between 11 and 49 % of adults exceeded the free sugar WHO recommendations, considering solely fluids. In Germany, UK, Poland and Japan, the largest contributors to TFI were hot beverages (28–50 %) and water (18–32 %). Mean energy intake from fluids ranged from 415 to 817 kcal/day, and 48–62 % of adults exceeded free sugar WHO recommendations. In Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, the contribution of juices and regular sugar beverages (28–41 %) was as important as the water contribution to TFI (17–39 %). Mean energy intake from fluids ranged 565–694 kcal/day, and 60–66 % of the adults exceeded the free sugar WHO recommendation. Conclusions The highest volumes recorded in most of the countries were for water, mean energy intake from fluids was up to 694 kcal/day, and 66 % of adults exceeded the free sugar WHO recommendation solely by fluids. Actions to create an environment in favour of water consumption and reduce sugar intake from fluids therefore are warranted. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00394-015-0952-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.