Fossil fuel resources are invaluable to economic growth and social development. Understanding the formation and distribution of fossil fuel resources is critical for the search and exploration of them. Until now, the vertical distribution depth of fossil fuel resources has not been confirmed due to different understandings of their origins and the substantial variation in reservoir depths from basin to basin. Geological and geochemical data of 13 634 source rock samples from 1286 exploration wells in six representative petroliferous basins were examined to identify the maximum burial depth of active source rocks in each basin, which is referred to in this study as the active source rock depth limit (ASDL). Beyond the ASDL, source rocks no longer generate or expel hydrocarbons and become inactive. Therefore, the ASDL also sets the maximum depth for fossil fuel resources. The ASDLs of basins around the world are found to range from 3000 to 16 000 m, while the thermal maturities (Ro) of source rocks at the ASDLs are almost the same, with Ro ≈ 3:5±0:5 %. The Ro of 3.5% can be regarded as a general criterion to identify ASDLs. High heat flow and more oil-prone kerogen are associated with shallow ASDLs. In addition, tectonic uplift of source rocks can significantly affect ASDLs; 21.6 billion tons of reserves in six representative basins in China and 52 926 documented oil and gas reservoirs in 1186 basins around the world are all located above ASDLs, demonstrating the universal presence of ASDLs in petroliferous basins and their control on the vertical distribution of fossil fuel resources. The data used in this study are deposited in the repository of the PANGAEA database at: https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.900865 (Pang et al., 2019).