Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus is a freshwater fish but can tolerate a wide range of salinities. The mechanism of salinity adaptation at the molecular level was studied using RNA-Seq to explore the molecular pathways in fish exposed to 0, 8, or 16 (practical salinity unit, psu). Based on the change of gene expressions, the differential genes unions from freshwater to saline water were classified into three categories. In the constant change category (1), steroid biosynthesis, steroid hormone biosynthesis, fat digestion and absorption, complement and coagulation cascades were significantly affected by salinity indicating the pivotal roles of sterol-related pathways in response to salinity stress. In the change-then-stable category (2), ribosomes, oxidative phosphorylation, signaling pathways for peroxisome proliferator activated receptors, and fat digestion and absorption changed significantly with increasing salinity, showing sensitivity to salinity variation in the environment and a responding threshold to salinity change. In the stable-then-change category (3), protein export, protein processing in endoplasmic reticulum, tight junction, thyroid hormone synthesis, antigen processing and presentation, glycolysis/gluconeogenesis and glycosaminoglycan biosynthesis-keratan sulfate were the significantly changed pathways, suggesting that these pathways were less sensitive to salinity variation. This study reveals fundamental mechanism of the molecular response to salinity adaptation in O. niloticus, and provides a general guidance to understand saline acclimation in O. niloticus.