Despite its purported importance, previous studies of the influence of sea-level rise on coastal aquifers have focused on specific sites, and a generalized systematic analysis of the general case of the sea water intrusion response to sea-level rise has not been reported. In this study, a simple conceptual framework is used to provide a first-order assessment of sea water intrusion changes in coastal unconfined aquifers in response to sea-level rise. Two conceptual models are tested: (1) flux-controlled systems, in which ground water discharge to the sea is persistent despite changes in sea level, and (2) head-controlled systems, whereby ground water abstractions or surface features maintain the head condition in the aquifer despite sea-level changes. The conceptualization assumes steady-state conditions, a sharp interface sea water-fresh water transition zone, homogeneous and isotropic aquifer properties, and constant recharge. In the case of constant flux conditions, the upper limit for sea water intrusion due to sea-level rise (up to 1.5 m is tested) is no greater than 50 m for typical values of recharge, hydraulic conductivity, and aquifer depth. This is in striking contrast to the constant head cases, in which the magnitude of salt water toe migration is on the order of hundreds of meters to several kilometers for the same sea-level rise. This study has highlighted the importance of inland boundary conditions on the sea-level rise impact. It identifies combinations of hydrogeologic parameters that control whether large or small salt water toe migration will occur for any given change in a hydrogeologic variable.