A shortage of fresh water is one of the acute challenges facing the world today. An energy-efficient approach to converting sea water into fresh water could be of substantial benefit, but current desalination methods require high power consumption and operating costs or large-scale infrastructures, which make them difficult to implement in resource-limited settings or in disaster scenarios. Here, we report a process for converting sea water (salinity approximately 500 mM or approximately 30,000 mg l(-1)) to fresh water (salinity <10 mM or <600 mg l(-1)) in which a continuous stream of sea water is divided into desalted and concentrated streams by ion concentration polarization, a phenomenon that occurs when an ion current is passed through ion-selective membranes. During operation, both salts and larger particles (cells, viruses and microorganisms) are pushed away from the membrane (a nanochannel or nanoporous membrane), which significantly reduces the possibility of membrane fouling and salt accumulation, thus avoiding two problems that plague other membrane filtration methods. To implement this approach, a simple microfluidic device was fabricated and shown to be capable of continuous desalination of sea water (approximately 99% salt rejection at 50% recovery rate) at a power consumption of less than 3.5 Wh l(-1), which is comparable to current state-of-the-art systems. Rather than competing with larger desalination plants, the method could be used to make small- or medium-scale systems, with the possibility of battery-powered operation.