A discrete rate theory for multi-ion channels is presented, in which the continuous dynamics of ion diffusion is reduced to transitions between Markovian discrete states. In an open channel, the ion permeation process involves three types of events: an ion entering the channel, an ion escaping from the channel, or an ion hopping between different energy minima in the channel. The continuous dynamics leads to a hierarchy of Fokker-Planck equations, indexed by channel occupancy. From these the mean escape times and splitting probabilities (denoting from which side an ion has escaped) can be calculated. By equating these with the corresponding expressions from the Markov model, one can determine the Markovian transition rates. The theory is illustrated with a two-ion one-well channel. The stationary probability of states is compared with that from both Brownian dynamics simulation and the hierarchical Fokker-Planck equations. The conductivity of the channel is also studied, and the optimal geometry maximizing ion flux is computed. © 2014 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.