Tsunamis can have wavelengths ranging from 10 to 500 km and wave periods of up to an hour. As a result of their long wavelengths, tsunamis act as shallow-water waves. A wave becomes a shallow-water wave when the wavelength is very large compared to the water depth. Shallow-water waves move at a speed, c, that is dependent upon the water depth and is given by the formula:

where g is the acceleration due to gravity (= 9.8 m/s2) and H is the depth of water.

In the deep ocean, the typical water depth is around 4000 m, so a tsunami will therefore travel at around 200 m/s, or more than 700 km/h.

For tsunamis that are generated by underwater earthquakes, the amplitude (i.e wave height) of the tsunami is determined by the amount by which the sea-floor is displaced. Similarly, the wavelength nd period of the tsunami are determined by the size and shape of the underwater disturbance.

As well as travelling at high speeds, tsunamis can also travel large distances with limited energy losses. As the tsunami propagates across the ocean, the wave crests can undergo refraction (bending), which is caused by segments of the wave moving at different speeds as the water depth along the wave crest varies.