This article investigates the quantity of submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) from a coastal multi-layered aquifer system in response to constant rainfall infiltration. The system comprises an unconfined aquifer, a leaky confined aquifer and an aquitard between them and terminates at the coastline. An approximate analytical solution is derived based on the following assumptions: (i) flow is horizontal in the aquifers and vertical in the aquitard, and (ii) flow in the unconfined aquifer is described by nonlinear Boussinesq equation. The analytical solution is compared with numerical solutions of the strictly two-dimensional nonlinear model to validate the model assumptions used for the analytical solution. The SGD from the leaky confined aquifer increases with the inland rainfall infiltration recharge and the specific leakage of aquitard. The maximum SGD ranges from 1·87 to 10·37 m3 per day per meter of shoreline when rainfall infiltration ranges from 18·2 to 182 mm/year and the specific leakage of aquitard varies from 10−9 to 10−1 l/day. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.