The 5' and 3' termini of RNA play important roles in many cellular processes. Using Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET), we show that mRNAs and lncRNAs have an intrinsic propensity to fold in the absence of proteins into structures in which the 5' end and 3' end are ≤7 nm apart irrespective of mRNA length. Computational estimates suggest that the inherent proximity of the ends is a universal property of most mRNA and lncRNA sequences. Only guanosine-depleted RNA sequences with low sequence complexity are unstructured and exhibit end-to-end distances expected for the random coil conformation of RNA. While the biological implications remain to be explored, short end-to-end distances could facilitate the binding of protein factors that regulate translation initiation by bridging mRNA 5' and 3' ends. Furthermore, our studies provide the basis for measuring, computing and manipulating end-to-end distances and secondary structure in RNA in research and biotechnology.