We review the global structures adopted by branched nucleic acids, including three- and four-way helical junctions in DNA and RNA. We find that some general folding principles emerge. First, all the structures exhibit a tendency to undergo pairwise coaxial helical stacking when permitted by the local stereochemistry of strand exchange. Second, metal ions generally play an important role in facilitating folding of branched nucleic acids. These principles can be applied to functionally important branched nucleic acids, such as the Holliday DNA junction of genetic recombination, and the hammerhead ribozyme in RNA.