Impacts of rising sea level on the hydraulic balance between aquifers and the ocean threaten fresh water resources and aquatic ecosystems along many world coastlines. Understanding the vulnerability of groundwater systems to these changes and the primary factors that determine the magnitude of system response is critical to developing effective management and adaptation plans in coastal zones. We assessed the vulnerability of two types of groundwater systems, recharge-limited and topography-limited, to changes caused by sea-level rise over a range of hydrogeologic settings. Vulnerability in this context is defined by the rate and magnitude of salinization of coastal aquifers and changes in groundwater flow to the sea. Two-dimensional variable-density groundwater flow and salt transport simulations indicate that the response of recharge-limited systems is largely minimal, whereas topography-limited systems are vulnerable for various combinations of permeability, vertical anisotropy in permeability, and recharge. World coastlines were classified according to system type as a vulnerability indicator. Results indicate that approximately 70% of world coastlines may be topography-limited, though variability in hydrogeologic conditions strongly affects classification. Future recharge and sea-level rise scenarios have much less influence on the proportion of vulnerable coastlines than differences in permeability, distance to a hydraulic divide, and recharge, indicating that hydrogeologic properties and setting are more important factors to consider in determining system type than uncertainties in the magnitude of sea-level rise and hydrologic shifts associated with future climate change.