A climate data record of global sea surface temperature (SST) spanning 1981–2016 has been developed from 4 × 10¹² satellite measurements of thermal infra-red radiance. The spatial area represented by pixel SST estimates is between 1 km² and 45 km². The mean density of good-quality observations is 13 km⁻² yr⁻¹. SST uncertainty is evaluated per datum, the median uncertainty for pixel SSTs being 0.18 K. Multi-annual observational stability relative to drifting buoy measurements is within 0.003 K yr⁻¹ of zero with high confidence, despite maximal independence from in situ SSTs over the latter two decades of the record. Data are provided at native resolution, gridded at 0.05° latitude-longitude resolution (individual sensors), and aggregated and gap-filled on a daily 0.05° grid. Skin SSTs, depth-adjusted SSTs de-aliased with respect to the diurnal cycle, and SST anomalies are provided. Target applications of the dataset include: climate and ocean model evaluation; quantification of marine change and variability (including marine heatwaves); climate and ocean-atmosphere processes; and specific applications in ocean ecology, oceanography and geophysics.