The northwest basins of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are regions of intense western boundary currents (WBCs) — the Gulf Stream and the Kuroshio. The variability of these poleward currents and their extensions in the open ocean is of major importance to the climate system. It is largely dominated by in-phase meridional shifts downstream of the points at which they separate from the coast. Tide gauges on the adjacent coastlines have measured the inshore sea level for many decades and provide a unique window on the past of the oceanic circulation. The relationship between coastal sea level and the variability of the western boundary currents has been previously studied in each basin separately, but comparison between the two basins is missing. Here we show for each basin that the inshore sea level upstream of the separation points is in sustained agreement with the meridional shifts of the western boundary current extension over the period studied, i.e. the past 7 (5) decades in the Atlantic (Pacific). Decomposition of the coastal sea level into principal components allows us to discriminate this variability in the upstream sea level from other sources of variability such as the influence of large meanders in the Pacific. Our result extends previous findings limited to the altimetry era and suggests that prediction of inshore sea-level changes could be improved by the inclusion of meridional shifts of the western boundary current extensions as predictors. Long-duration tide gauges, such as Key West, Fernandina Beach or Hosojima, could be used as proxies for the past meridional shifts of the western boundary current extensions.