There is a broad variety of methods to estimate groundwater recharge, but tools to assess the reliability of particular methods are not available. This paper introduces three distinct criteria to assess the reliability of recharge: applicability of the method used, availability of reliable data, and spatial coverage. Weightings of each criterion are assigned using key attributes present to total attributes required under each criterion. A reliability assessment was applied to two point-recharge and two diffuse-recharge dominated groundwater basins in South Australia. We show that the use of groundwater age based on chlorofluorocarbon and the conventional chloride mass balance method gives unreliable estimates of recharge in karstic aquifers, primarily due to inappropriate assumptions concerning the nature of recharge in these systems. Among the methods evaluated, watertable fluctuation, numerical groundwater modelling, Darcy flow calculation and the water budget method are applied to both point and diffuse recharge dominant groundwater basins. The reliability of these methods depends primarily on the quality of data and spatial coverage of the basin. Once the reliability level is known, water resources planners and managers assess the level of risk to aquifers, the environment, and the socio-economic development required for sustainable management of groundwater. © 2014 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.