Sea water intrusion into aquifers is problematic in many coastal areas. The physics and chemistry of this issue are complex, and sea water intrusion remains challenging to quantify. Simple assessment tools like analytical models offer advantages of rapid application, but their applicability to field situations is unclear. This study examines the reliability of a popular sharp-interface analytical approach for estimating the extent of sea water in a homogeneous coastal aquifer subjected to pumping and regional flow effects and under steady-state conditions. The analytical model is tested against observations from Canada, the United States, and Australia to assess its utility as an initial approximation of sea water extent for the purposes of rapid groundwater management decision making. The occurrence of sea water intrusion resulting in increased salinity at pumping wells was correctly predicted in approximately 60% of cases. Application of a correction to account for dispersion did not markedly improve the results. Failure of the analytical model to provide correct predictions can be attributed to mismatches between its simplifying assumptions and more complex field settings. The best results occurred where the toe of the salt water wedge is expected to be the closest to the coast under predevelopment conditions. Predictions were the poorest for aquifers where the salt water wedge was expected to extend further inland under predevelopment conditions and was therefore more dispersive prior to pumping. Sharp-interface solutions remain useful tools to screen for the vulnerability of coastal aquifers to sea water intrusion, although the significant sources of uncertainty identified in this study require careful consideration to avoid misinterpreting sharp-interface results.