The relationship between defective fibrinolysis and arterial thrombosis is uncertain. The evaluation of the plasma fibrinolytic potential might provide stronger evidence linking fibrinolysis to arterial thrombosis than the evaluation of the individual fibrinolytic factors. We determined the plasma fibrinolytic potential of 335 young survivors of a first arterial thrombosis, including coronary artery disease (n = 198), ischaemic stroke (n = 103) and peripheral artery disease (n = 34), enrolled in a population-based case–control study and of 330 healthy individuals. Patients had significantly higher clot lysis times (CLTs) than the controls. Odds ratios (ORs) were calculated as a measure of relative risk. The OR for arterial thrombosis was determined in these subjects who had a CLT above the 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th and 95th percentiles of the values found in the control subjects. We found a progressive increase in risk of arterial thrombosis in subjects with hypofibrinolysis (OR: 1·7, 2·0, 2·3, 2·3 and 2·9, respectively). Relative risk estimates obtained in the whole group were comparable those obtained in the event-subgroups. In conclusion, a low plasma fibrinolytic potential, found in 10% of the population, increases the relative risk of arterial thrombosis twofold. This points to an important contribution of hypofibrinolysis to the burden of arterial thrombosis.