Abstract Mammalian de novo DNA methyltransferases (DNMT) are responsible for the establishment of cell-type-specific DNA methylation in healthy and diseased tissues. Through genome-wide analysis of de novo methylation activity in murine stem cells we uncover that DNMT3A prefers to methylate CpGs followed by cytosines or thymines, while DNMT3B predominantly methylates CpGs followed by guanines or adenines. These signatures are further observed at non-CpG sites, resembling methylation context observed in specialised cell types, including neurons and oocytes. We further show that these preferences are not mediated by the differential recruitment of the two de novo DNMTs to the genome but are resulting from structural differences in their catalytic domains. Molecular dynamics simulations suggest that, in case of DNMT3A, the preference is due to favourable polar interactions between the flexible Arg836 side chain and the guanine that base-pairs with the cytosine following the CpG. This context-dependent de novo DNA methylation provides additional insights into the complex regulation of methylation patterns in different cell types.