Simple runoff models with a low number of model parameters are generally able to simulate catchment runoff reasonably well, but they rely on model calibration, which makes their use in ungauged basins challenging. In a previous study it has been shown that a limited number of streamflow measurements can be quite informative for constraining runoff models. In practice, however, instead of performing such repeated flow measurements, it might be easier to install a stream level logger. Here, a dataset of 600+ gauged basins in the USA was used to study how well models perform when only stream level data, rather than streamflow data, are available. A runoff model (the HBV model) was calibrated assuming that only stream level observations were available, and the simulations were evaluated on the full observed streamflow record. The results indicate that stream level data alone can already provide surprisingly good model simulation results in humid catchments, whereas in arid catchments some form of quantitative information (e.g. a streamflow observation or a regional average value) is needed to obtain good results. These results are encouraging for hydrological observations in data scarce regions as level observations are much easier to obtain than streamflow measurements. Based on runoff modelling, it might even be possible to derive streamflow time series from the level data obtained from loggers, satellites or community-based approaches. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.