Introducing transition-metal components to ceria (CeO2) is important to tailor the surface redox properties for a broad scope of applications. The emergence of high-entropy oxides (HEOs) has brought transformative opportunities for oxygen defect engineering in ceria yet has been hindered by the difficulty in controllably introducing transition metals to the bulk lattice of ceria. Here, we report the fabrication of ceria-based nanocrystals with surface-confined atomic HEO layers for enhanced catalysis. The increased covalency of the transition-metal–oxygen bonds at the HEO–CeO2 interface promotes the formation of surface oxygen vacancies, enabling efficient oxygen activation and replenishment for enhanced CO oxidation capabilities. Understanding the structural heterogeneity involving bulk and surface oxygen defects in nanostructured HEOs provides useful insights into rational design of atomically precise metal oxides, whose increased compositional and structural complexities give rise to expanded functionalities.