This article provides an economic framework for understanding and evaluating groundwater governance across the globe. We provide an assessment of groundwater management along three dimensions: characteristics of the groundwater resource; externality problems; and governance institutions. We examine 10 basins located on six continents which vary in terms of intensity and type of water demand, hydrogeological properties, climate, and social and institutional traditions via an integrated assessment along three dimensions: characteristics of the groundwater resource; externality problems; and governance institutions. Our framework suggests these characteristics, along with the high cost of governance, have left many basins in a state of de facto open access. However, governance of the highest value water resources suggest that rules can emerge at relatively low costs that partially address externality problems. We identify these conditions and discuss key challenges and opportunities for additional research.