Approximately one-third of long rivers remain free-flowing, and rivers face a range of ongoing and future threats. In response, there is a heightened call for actions to reverse the freshwater biodiversity crisis, including through formal global targets for protection. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets called for the protection of 17% of inland water areas by 2020. Here, we examine the levels and spatial patterns of protection for a specific type of inland water area—rivers designated as free-flowing. Out of a global total of 11.7 million kilometers of rivers, 1.9 million kilometers (16%) are within protected areas and 10.1 million kilometers are classified as free-flowing, with 1.7 million kilometers of the free-flowing kilometers (17%) within protected areas.