Whether permafrost systematically alters the rate of riverbank erosion is a fundamental geomorphic question with significant importance to infrastructure, water quality, and biogeochemistry of high-latitude watersheds. For over four decades, this question has remained unanswered due to a lack of data. Using remotely sensed imagery, we addressed this knowledge gap by quantifying riverbank erosion rates across the Arctic and subarctic. To compare these rates to non-permafrost rivers, we assembled a global data set of published riverbank erosion rates. We found that erosion rates in rivers influenced by permafrost are on average nine times lower than non-permafrost systems; erosion rate differences increase up to 40 times for the largest rivers. To test alternative hypotheses for the observed erosion rate difference, we examined differences in total water yield and erosional efficiency between these rivers and non-permafrost rivers. Neither of these factors nor differences in river sediment loads provided compelling alternative explanations, leading us to conclude that permafrost limits riverbank erosion rates. This conclusion was supported by field investigations of rates and patterns of erosion along three rivers flowing through discontinuous permafrost in Alaska. Our results show that permafrost limits maximum bank erosion rates on rivers with stream powers greater than 900 Wm−1. On smaller rivers, however, hydrology rather than thaw rate may be the dominant control on bank erosion. Our findings suggest that Arctic warming and hydrological changes should increase bank erosion rates on large rivers but may reduce rates on rivers with drainage areas less than a few thousand km2.