Rainfall replenishes surface and subsurface water but is partially intercepted by a canopy. However, it is challenging to quantify the rainfall passing through the canopy (i.e. throughfall). This study derives simple-to-use empirical equations relating throughfall to canopy and rainfall characteristics. Monthly throughfall is calculated by applying a mass balance model on weather data from Singapore; Vancouver, Canada; and Stanford, USA. Regression analysis is then performed on the calculated throughfall with three dependent variables (i.e. maximum canopy storage, average rainfall depth and time interval between two consecutive rainfall in a month) to derive the empirical equations. One local equation is derived for each location using data from that particular location, and one global equation is derived using data from all three locations. The equations are further verified with calculated monthly throughfall from other weather data and actual throughfall field measurements, giving an accuracy of about 80–90%. The global equation is relatively less accurate but is applicable worldwide. Overall, this study provides a global equation through which one can quickly estimate throughfall with only information on the three variables. When additional weather data are available, one can follow the proposed methodology to derive their own equations for better estimates. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.